School & District Management

Panel Urges ECS to Expand Presence, Focus

By David J. Hoff — September 12, 2006 3 min read
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The Education Commission of the States needs to actively engage policymakers on emerging educational issues if it’s going to thrive, according to an ad hoc group formed map the future of the struggling 41-year-old group.

The Denver-based nonprofit organization should expand beyond its traditional role of collecting information on state policy and expand its efforts to put that information into the hands of people on the state and federal levels who can use it, the ad hoc group says in a document that it will be seeking comments on in the coming months.

“Being an honest broker is the unique thing that ECS can provide,” said Jim Geringer, a member of the ad hoc group and the ECS’ chairman from 1999 through 2000 while he was the governor of Wyoming. “Who else can you go to get a clear idea of what’s happening out there?”

But Mr. Geringer and other participants said that the ECS needs to use its objective analysis of information to play a significant role in the dialogue on how policies are made. That step may include opening a Washington office to be a resource for federal officials, or helping states set up consortia to address specific issues.

“By not being better known by the current players, … [the ECS is] not being heard and not having as much impact as it can,” said Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, the president of Say Yes to Education, a New York City nonprofit group that helps urban children succeed in school and enter college.

New Directions

Faced with a leadership change—its president, Piedad F. Robertson, announced last week she will leave her post this week, more than four months before her contract expires—and financial difficulties, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, the ECS’ chairwoman, has started a process to re-evaluate its mission and set a direction for its future. (“ECS Prepares to Set Agenda, Find President,” July 26, 2006.)

In the first step, 26 state leaders, foundation officials, and education researchers convened in Kansas City, Kan., on Aug. 31. The ad hoc group included Mr. Geringer, Ms. Schmitt-Carey, Delaware state Sen. David P. Sokola, a Democrat who had been the ECS’ vice chairman from 2004 until this summer, and staff members from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Researchers at the meeting included Sharon Lynn Kagan, a professor of early childhood and family policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Janet S. Hansen, a researcher for the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank.

Gov. Sebelius, a Democrat, and several of her aides also attended.

The group recommended maintaining the ECS’ historic mission of collecting information on state education policies and convening events for state policymakers. But it also suggested that the ECS increase its visibility so that policymakers are aware of the resources available from the organization.

That would include opening a Washington office “with a significant … presence so that the ECS is a participant in national policy discussions on education,” says a three-page summary of ideas discussed at the Kansas meeting.

The purpose wouldn’t be to advocate on state officials’ behalf, but to inform federal policymakers how their ideas would affect and change what states do, said Mr. Geringer, a Republican, who was Wyoming’s governor from 1995 until 2003. “ECS can help facilitate steering the federal choices so they don’t become onerous on the states,” he said.

Getting More Active

While the working group said that state officials would be the ECS’s primary audience, it recognized that others—such as mayors, district leaders, and judges— benefit from its work.

In addition to working in Washington, the ECS needs to be more aggressive than ever in working in the field, Ms. Schmitt-Carey said, and help policymakers on the state level understand their role in making policies work.

The ECS has to help people understand “what best practices mean,” she said.

Because it is the only group that brings state education policymakers of all stripes together, the ECS is the only group capable of playing that role, according to Ms. Schmitt-Carey. “We have to figure out how to put the pieces together,” she said.

The state officials who rely on the group’s services include governors, chief state school officers, legislators, and university leaders.

The three-page summary of the Aug. 31 meeting will be posted at www.ecs.org, as soon as this week. The ad hoc group will accept comments through this month.

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Panel Urges ECS to Expand Presence, Focus

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