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Leaders Pledge To 'Stay the Course'

Declaring themselves the voice of mainstream America, the leaders of a growing alternative group for education leaders used their fifth annual conference here last month to stake claims in education's most challenging terrain.

On topics ranging from standardized testing and merit pay for teachers to school choice and the federal role in K-12 education, members of the conservative-leaning Education Leaders Council often derided the views of their opponents, whom they referred to as "the loosey-goosey left" and the "guardians of mediocrity."

"We have a basic philosophical battle here we need to win," Arizona's state schools superintendent, Lisa Graham Keegan, said in the conference's opening session. A founding member of the Washington-based ELC, Ms. Keegan joined a panel of like-minded state education chiefs to kick off the two-day conference on September 22 with a spirited forum on standards-based education.

While state testing programs are under fire in some states, the education officials on the panel insisted they would not be deterred from setting high standards—and testing to those standards. In the battle to preserve strong accountability systems, Ms. Keegan said, schools chiefs must defeat a school of thought that promotes "the child-as-potted-plant syndrome," which she defined as believing that "we're just going to let them blossom."

"This is ridiculous," she said. "Children need to be structured before they can be free."

Virginia Secretary of Education Wilbert Bryant said that while his state's accountability system had had trouble gaining traction and required changes, "we are not retreating."

"I grew up in a time when Virginia's schools were separate and unequal," said Mr. Bryant, an African- American. "I'm going to make sure we stay the course in Virginia so every child receives a quality education."

Eugene W. Hickok, the Pennsylvania education secretary and the ELC's chairman, acknowledged during a question-and-answer period that the protests against states' testing efforts had come not just from liberals who favor less structured schooling, but also from conservative family groups.

"Skepticism and nervousness about government is a healthy American tradition," Mr. Hickok said. "But we need to make sure instruction is paying off, and one way to do that is through rigorous testing and standards."

Also participating in the panel discussion were the state schools chiefs of Colorado, Georgia, and Texas.

While most of the conference's 400 attendees supported the ELC's anti-status-quo platform, the conference schedule featured contrary points of view in its marquee debates.

During one such duel, billed as "Does Profit Profit Children?," Florida Lt. Gov. Frank T. Brogan voiced sympathy for Gerald W. Bracey, an independent researcher and writer recruited to play the "con" to Edison Schools Inc. chief executive officer Christopher Whittle's "pro."

"It's like being a mosquito at a nudist camp," Mr. Brogan said of the status of Mr. Bracey, a prominent defender of the public schools' performance, as an outsider at the ELC conference. "Sounds like fun to me," Mr. Bracey joked.

Even the teachers' unions, which ELC members criticized throughout the weekend, were represented in a debate on the mother of all polarizing issues in education: vouchers. To no one's surprise, the union leaders argued that vouchers were not a viable fix for failing schools.

"We cannot afford, in my estimation, to take a single dollar out of public education and invest it somewhere else," declared Penny Kotterman, the president of the Arizona Education Association.

Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said he supported the idea of public school choice, but decried the use of public money to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. "The public schools should be overhauled, not abandoned," he said. "Vouchers are a defeatist proposal."

But Dolores Fridge, the vice president of the new, Milwaukee-based Black Alliance for Educational Options, argued that the possibilities vouchers represent are crucial for millions of urban minority students who are receiving inferior educations in public schools.

"Not only are vouchers part of the [solution], they are the answer to this problem," she said.

ELC members may take pride in bucking convention, but it was Mr. Hickok who ran the risk of getting bucked during a Friday-night dinner for conference participants.

Decked out in cowboy boots and chaps, the Pennsylvania secretary of education trotted into the open-air dining tent on horseback. Ms. Keegan proceeded to present the former college professor with a 10-gallon hat for being the council's "Best-Dressed School Chief of 2000."

"This isn't a hat, it's a tent," cracked Mr. Hickok—who enjoys a reputation as something of a snappy dresser—as the hat slid down over his eyes.

Mr. Hickok soon returned the favor by presenting Ms. Keegan with the group's 4th annual "Rebel With a Cause" award. The Arizona schools chief, who is the ELC's vice chairwoman, struck her best James Dean pose in a black leather jacket and sunglasses brought out for the occasion.

Not to be upstaged, the horse took pains to let everyone know—as Mr. Hickok struggled with the reins—that Ms. Keegan wasn't the only one at the dinner with a rebellious streak.

—Darcia Harris Bowman & Caroline Hendrie

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Page 20

Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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