Council for Basic Education Closes Doors

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The Council for Basic Education shut its doors last month after nearly half a century—the victim, its leaders say, of a tight fund-raising environment for education groups.

The 48-year-old advocacy organization for a strong liberal-arts curriculum in schools had found it difficult in recent years to raise money from foundations.

"It’s harder to get money for pure advocacy than it ever has been," A. Graham Down, the group’s acting president when the group closed, said shortly after the Washington-based council shut down on June 30. "There are a lot of organizations out there doing our kind of work."

"It has been a hard time for this type of agency," added Janet B. Keeler, the chairwoman of the group’s board of directors. "What has been done had to be done. We’re all very sad about it."

As of its 2001 annual report, the most recent one posted on the group’s Web site, the council had $2.8 million in assets. Almost $2 million of its $2.6 million in revenue came from grants and contracts from philanthropies such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as well as several corporations.

Increased Competition

In recent years, several education groups have struggled to finance their projects in the face of constraints on foundation giving and the increased scramble for dollars.

"In the past 10 years, there has been a mushrooming of organizations in education policy," said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy.

In addition to Mr. Jennings’ organization, which he started in 1995, groups such as Achieve Inc. and the Education Trust have joined the competition for philanthropic support. Also in the past 20 years, the National Governors Association, the Business Roundtable, and other older groups have added to the pressure on limited funds by substantially increasing their education advocacy. In addition, foundations have had to cut back giving in recent years because of declines in the stock market, Mr. Jennings said.

"If foundations aren’t willing to give you steady funding," he said, "you run the risk of collapsing."

Mission Accomplished?

The Council for Basic Education was started by a group of prominent intellectuals in 1956 to advance liberal arts education in public schools.

Among the founders were Jacques Barzun, the distinguished Columbia University historian and the author of the 2000 best seller From Dawn to Decadence, among other books; Mary Bingham, whose family owned The Courier-Journal newspaper of Louisville, Ky.; and Clifton Fadiman, a founder of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

In many ways, the council had met all of its goals, according to Mr. Down, who had been the group’s president for 20 years when he retired in 1994. He returned on an acting basis after Raymond "Buzz" Bartlett left the council this spring. At the time, the board thought the organization’s financial problems could be solved, Mr. Down said.

Despite its financial woes, the council can claim credit for some of the changes in education policy in the past 48 years, he added.

All students, he said, now have access to instruction in the basic curriculum needed to participate in society, which had been one of the group’s top priorities.

Mr. Down pointed out that the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to track student achievement in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school. "All of the things that the council was concerned with were addressed in that act," he said.

Under Christopher T. Cross, the council’s president from 1994 through 2001, the group actively participated in the debates over defining what students should know in academic standards and assessing whether they had achieved those standards.

For example, Mr. Cross, who served as an assistant U.S. secretary of education during the first Bush administration, convened educators and historians to review a controversial, federally financed set of voluntary national history standards and suggest changes to them.

Earlier this year, the group produced a report, financed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, that suggested schools were focusing on reading and math at the expense of other subjects to ensure good scores for state and federal accountability systems. ("Principals' Poll Shows Erosion Of Liberal Arts Curriculum," March 17, 2004).

Parceling Out

The council’s 12 staff members were given one month’s notice to find new jobs, and many have, according to Mr. Down.

As of last week, Mr. Down said he and others were working to arrange for other groups to finish CBE projects that have been underwritten by funders.

For example, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education will complete work on a program to recruit new teachers in the Mid-Atlantic region. The project—also paid for by the Carnegie Corporation—is scheduled to end in 2006.

Vol. 23, Issue 42, Page 3

Published in Print: July 14, 2004, as Council for Basic Education Closes Doors
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