School & District Management

ECS Urged to Bolster Support Mission, Avoid Advocacy Role on Policy Issues

By Jessica L. Tonn — December 19, 2006 4 min read
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The Education Commission of the States—beset by management and financial problems in the past year—should concentrate on being a nonpartisan information clearinghouse for state education policymakers, rather than an advocate for policy changes, members of a consulting firm told the organization’s steering committee last week.

As the ECS searches for its fourth president in three years, many in the education community, including ECS officials themselves, have questioned whether the 41-year-old, Denver-based group remains viable. After a survey of former and current staff members, funders, and education policymakers by education consultants Cross & Joftus, ECS leaders have concluded that the group has an important mission, though not at the front lines of policymaking.

“Our best role may be to stand right behind [groups like the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures] and make sure they have the best information and expertise,” Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who took over as the ECS chairwoman earlier this year, told about 50 steering-committee members at the Dec. 10-11 meeting here. “They are the policymakers; let them hash out the policy.”

The re-evaluation comes after financial troubles were brought to light last spring. Kathy Christie, the organization’s No. 2 staff member, resigned in May, claiming that President Piedad F. Robertson had failed to disclose the ECS’ financial problems to the steering committee. (“ECS Resignations Raise Questions of Fiscal Health,” May 10, 2006. )

Ms. Robertson since has stepped down, nearly five months before her contract was to end, and Ms. Christie has returned to her post.

The organization has long relied on financial support from state dues and philanthropic foundations. But charitable support, which accounts for roughly half the group’s funding, has begun to dry up in recent years. Revenue from grants and contracts fell from just under $5 million in 2004 to $2.6 million in 2005.

Cross & Joftus suggests that the ECS look to alternative revenue sources, such as fee-for-service work, to offset the loss.

New Mission

Crucial to achieving the new mission, the consultants suggest, will be for the ECS to thoroughly assess states’ needs, hire analytical staff members and scholars, and form partnerships with organizations that collect state data and support policy development. They also recommend that the group open an office in Washington as a resource for those crafting federal education policies that affect states.

Fresh Start

The Education Commission of the States is considering new vision and mission statements.

Vision: To be the leader and key resource in the process through which the states continually learn from one another as they work to improve teaching and learning for their residents.

Mission: The mission of ECS is to help states develop effective policy and practice for education by providing data, research, analysis, and leadership; and by facilitating collaboration, the exchange of ideas among the states, and long-range strategic thinking.

The organization also is considering 15 recommendations for rebuilding. Among them, the ECS should:

• Serve as an information compendium for education policymakers, particularly governors, legislatures, and state agency leader.

• Conduct a thorough needs assessment in order to determine what will help states most, and regularly produce research on important education topics for state leaders.

• Work in partnership with other organizations that collect state data and support policy development in order to minimize duplication of effort.

• Expand its resources by hiring more analytical personnel and recruiting scholars as senior advisers to support its work.

• Strengthen its financial capacity by obtaining foundation support, collecting 100 percent of state dues, and undertaking fee-for-service work for the states.

SOURCE: Education Commission of the States

Discussion and revision of the new mission statement and the recommendations presented by the consultants continues. The next steering-committee meeting is scheduled for April.

“ECS’s primary role is to support states in developing their own capacity for leadership—by equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to work through their own challenges,” the consultants write in their report to the organization.

Just as important as revamping the group’s mission, members say, will be communicating the changes to the organization’s constituents.

“We need to go to states and say, ‘This is what we can do for you,’ so that people don’t think we’re a do-nothing organization,” Jewel Scott, the executive director of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, a coalition of business executives in the Kansas City area, said during a discussion of the proposed changes.

And effective communication will do more than just improve the group’s image, members say.

“Whatever we decide needs to be communicated very well to the states—they need to know why paying their dues will be good for them,” Sandy Garrett, Oklahoma’s state schools superintendent said during that discussion.

Only two-thirds of the states have paid their dues this year, according to ECS officials. That number has declined from 80 percent in recent years, in part because of states’ budget concerns and loss of faith in the organization, Christopher T. Cross, the chairman of Cross & Joftus and a former distinguished scholar with the ECS, told members at the meeting.

Seeking Support

States are not the only parties that will have to buy into what Gov. Sebelius and other leaders call the “new ECS.”

Ms. Sebelius, a Democrat, said in an interview last week that she would like the ECS to set its mission and get funders to go along.

Having a concrete mission also should help the group’s leadership transition, the consultants say.

The new president must have a much better understanding of the organization and the job than did past presidents, Mr. Cross told committee members.

Gov. Sebelius and Wisconsin state Sen. Luther S. Olsen, chairman of the presidential-search committee, say they are impressed with the candidates.

Mr. Olsen said he hopes to have the new president identified in April. He hopes the organization will be on a stronger financial footing by the time the new executive takes over.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as ECS Urged to Bolster Support Mission, Avoid Advocacy Role on Policy Issues

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