School & District Management

School Chiefs’ Group Elbows Into Policy Fight

By Michele McNeil — January 31, 2012 10 min read
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Amid the cacophony of special interests fighting to be heard in statehouses and on Capitol Hill, a cadre of current and former chief state school officers is elbowing its way into the nation’s education debate at a time when states are taking more control of K-12 education.

A little more than a year old, Chiefs for Change is an invitation-only group of nine current and two former state chiefs whose causes include teacher evaluations tied to student achievement, more school choices for families, rewards for successful schools and more-intensive interventions for failing ones, and more-transparent accountability systems.

The group has taken this “bold, visionary” agenda, as its members call it, on the road: to Congress, where they often testify before the Republican-controlled House education committee; to state capitals, where they’ve touted school choice; and to the U.S. Department of Education, where they’ve urged Secretary Arne Duncan to grant states a longer accountability leash in exchange for holding them to a higher bar.

Already, leading education voices from Mr. Duncan to U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, have invoked Chiefs for Change to justify various policy proposals. But whether the group has staying power, given how much turnover can occur in state superintendents’ and commissioners’ jobs, and whether they’ll have a significant impact beyond their own borders is an open question.

“They are having some effect now, ... but the fact is that so many conservatives control state governments now, and their ideas are things Republicans want to do,” said Jack Jennings, a former longtime Democratic aide on Capitol Hill and the retiring head of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group. He said that, with the group’s support of policies such as school choice, he views it as a partisan one with a “conservative agenda. They’re trying to cloak it in nonpartisanship and reform.”

Chiefs for Change takes the policy stage at a time when a number of ideas long associated with the conservative end of the political spectrum—vouchers, for example, and linking teachers’ evaluations and student test scores—have drawn more far-ranging momentum. And a robust debate continues over who will claim the mantle of “reform” in education policy.

Chiefs for Change

Nine state education chiefs are now a part of Chiefs for Change, started in late 2010 in partnership with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The group, which supports teacher evaluations tied to student performance and school choice, seeks to put “children first through bold, visionary education reform.” Former state chiefs Eric Smith of Florida and Paul Pastorek of Louisiana serve as ex-officio members. The other members are:


Janet Barresi
Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction
Elected, Republican
Major agenda items: Implementing a new teacher-evaluation system based, in part, on student achievement, and working on a new A-F school accountability grading system and an end to social promotion after the 3rd grade for students who cannot read.


Tony Bennett
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction
Elected, Republican
Major agenda items: Implementing a new grading system and the nation’s largest school choice program. Wants to improve teacher evaluations linked to student achievement.


Stephen Bowen
Maine Commissioner of Education
Major agenda items: Unveiled a new strategic education plan that involves a teacher-evaluation system based, in part, on student achievement, data-driven professional development, multiple pathways for students to demonstrate subject mastery, and a new state accountability system to replace the No Child Left Behind Act.


Chris Cerf
New Jersey Acting Commissioner of Education
Major agenda items: Implementing a new state accountability system; pushing for legislation to create a new statewide teacher-evaluation system tied to student achievement and used for personnel decisions; expanding the number of charter schools; and increasing interventions in the lowest-performing schools.


Deborah A. Gist
Rhode Island Commissioner of Education
Major agenda items: Raised the bar for entry into teacher-preparation programs, and is implementing her state’s Race to the Top award and a new teacher-evaluation system based, in part, on student achievement.


Kevin Huffman
Tennessee Commissioner of Education
Major agenda items: Implementing his state’s Race to the Top award and a new teacher-evaluation system based, in part, on student achievement, and executing a new strategic plan that involves strengthening teacher-certification criteria and expanding school choices for students.


Gerard Robinson
Florida Commissioner of Education
Major agenda items: Implementing his state’s Race to the Top award, including a new teacher-evaluation system, and unveiling new school rankings based on test scores.


Hanna Skandera
New Mexico Secretary-Designate of Education
Major agenda items: Implementing a new A-F school grading system, and pushing legislation to create a new teacher-evaluation system based, in part, on student achievement; ending social promotion of students to the 4th grade if they cannot read.


John White
Louisiana Superintendent of Education
Major agenda items: When superintendent of New Orleans’ Recovery School District, reorganized the central office and led school reconstruction efforts; as a former top official in New York City public schools, helped overhaul the teacher-effectiveness system.

SOURCES: Foundation for Excellence in Education; Education Week

Photos by AP

This group of mostly new state chiefs has an education godfather of sorts: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a prominent Republican whose Foundation for Excellence in Education, based in Tallahassee, Fla., houses and provides staff support and financial resources to the chiefs’ group.

For Mr. Bush, the dividing line isn’t Democratic or Republican: “It’s are you for the status quo, or are you being reform-minded?”

Though nonpartisan, Chiefs for Change has other strong Republican ties on top of the Bush connection. Two current chiefs in the group are elected Republicans, and nine took office through various appointment processes in states that now have Republican governors.

Only Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s education commissioner, works in a state without a Republican chief executive: Gov. Lincoln Chafee was elected as an Independent after serving in the U.S. Senate as a Republican.

“I saw firsthand how important it is to have reform-minded commissioners,” said Mr. Bush, who implemented an A-to-F grading system for schools and measures such as school vouchers during his time in office, from 1999 to 2007.

“But it gets lonely if you’re the sole reformer. They don’t always have a political base that can protect them from criticism that comes from advocating big change,” he said of state chiefs.

Common Cause

The concept behind Chiefs for Change emerged nearly two years ago. Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett and then-chiefs Eric J. Smith of Florida, and Paul G. Pastorek of Louisiana, all were looking for a way to more aggressively advance their ideas.

That trio recruited two others: Ms. Gist of Rhode Island and Gerard Robinson, who was Virginia’s education secretary at the time and is now the Florida chief.

Those five became the original members when Chiefs for Change was launched in 2010, and over the next several months, they recruited five more: Janet Barresi of Oklahoma; Kevin Huffman of Tennessee; Chris Cerf of New Jersey; Stephen Bowen of Maine; and Hanna Skandera of New Mexico. This week, newly appointed Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White became the 11th member.

Though there is no formal selection process, the members of the group, both sitting and former chiefs, must agree on any new additions.

“We want to have a membership that makes us relevant,” said Mr. Smith, who is now doing consulting work. “We’re selective. We don’t have a need to be all-encompassing. We want to be pushing and a bit on the edge.”

Even with its Republican ties, Chiefs for Change is pressing an agenda that isn’t necessarily aligned with Republicans on Capitol Hill. While the group is calling for both greater state flexibility and strong federal oversight in areas such as accountability for at-risk students and teacher performance, congressional Republicans seem bent on scaling back the federal role in accountability.

“They’re in a funny spot in that their natural allies on the Hill are the ones that want to reduce the federal role in education. I think it’s difficult politically,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in Washington. “What they are promoting are policies [that] Democrats out there can support.”

As one example, the chiefs joined with civil rights groups in calling for increased subgroup accountability in the proposed version of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act that Senate Democrats have put forward. They were unsuccessful in getting those changes made—at least so far.

Whether Republicans in Congress are listening is unclear, said Charles Barone, the federal policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee that espouses many positions akin to those of the chiefs. “But they’ve filled a niche for Republicans in that they are willing to be pragmatic about the role of the federal government,” he said.

It’s a niche that the Council of Chief State School Officers, the long-established organization representing nearly all state chiefs, couldn’t fill.

All of the Chiefs for Change also belong to the CCSSO, and, in fact, Mr. Bennett, the Indiana superintendent, joined that group’s board late last year. But the CCSSO is limited in what it can do—and how quickly it can do it—by its members, who represent 49 states with a wide range of specific concerns, political ideologies, and policy agendas. (Texas is not a CCSSO member.)

“We need to have a bold consensus, and we need the ability to move quickly,” said Ms. Skandera of New Mexico, who was a deputy education commissioner in Florida under then-Gov. Bush.

Or, as Mr. Robinson put it, Chiefs for Change was created “for the same reason you have new priests and new churches, because there’s a need to have a different voice for the same mission.”

For the CCSSO, officials say anything that elevates the visibility and influence of state chiefs is a plus.

“When Chiefs for Change succeeds, it helps us,” said Chris Minnich, the senior membership director for the Washington-based CCSSO.

Independent Streak

A group of state chiefs getting together to form a separate group with an edgier agenda than that of the official national organization is not without precedent.

In 1996, some conservative-leaning chiefs banded together to form the Education Leaders Council to press for policy measures they felt established education groups were not advancing. Led for part of its history by Lisa Graham Keegan, the former Arizona chief who is set to advise the presidential campaign of Newt Gingrich on education policy, the ELC pushed stronger accountability systems and assessments.

But the group ran into trouble in 2006 when an Education Department audit found the organization had misused nearly $500,000 in federal grant money. (“Audit Faults Spending by Leaders Council,” Feb. 15, 2006.)

Chiefs for Change may share a similar education agenda, but its organizational structure is far different from that of the ELC.

It’s more of a club, and not a legal entity, relying heavily on the Foundation for Excellence in Education for logistical and financial support.

The foundation does everything from putting together policy statements to fielding media requests. It also keeps tabs on federal education issues for the chiefs, organizes biweekly conference calls for members to talk policy, and covers expenses incurred with its Chiefs for Change work.

The foundation, which receives funding from such donors as the Broad Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, declined to say how much money it spends on the chiefs’ activities. (Education Week also receives grant support from the Gates and Walton foundations.)

The Foundation for Excellence in Education also works to bring the chiefs together for joint initiatives and to help them leverage private funds to pay for those projects; four of the chiefs, as one example, are pursuing a pilot project to jump-start a blended-learning effort, which seeks to combine online and face-to-face learning.

Despite the close working relationship, the foundation and Chiefs for Change remain distinct groups, said Patricia Levesque, the foundation’s executive director.

“The chiefs come up with their policy decisions, and they decide what to make statements on,” Ms. Levesque said. “Our mission is how do we advance reform policies to improve student achievement, and we believe it happens on a state level. We can help chiefs implement good policy.”

Early Impact

Though the chiefs say it’s far too early to gauge their influence, they also say it’s not too early to see some results—especially at the state level.

Some members of Chiefs for Change are leading Race to the Top states: Florida, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.

Six of them submitted waiver applications in the first round of the federal Education Department’s new effort to grant flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act. Those first-round applications are likely to help shape a flood of second-round applications expected later this month.

“We are leading out front there,” Ms. Gist of Rhode Island said.

Most of the states have moved, or are moving, to an A-to-F grading system for schools, modeled after Florida’s more than decade-old accountability system. Five of the seven states that last week earned the highest grades from the National Council on Teacher Quality for improving teacher policies are led by a Chief for Change.

Mr. Bennett, the chairman of the group, has served as an ambassador of sorts, visiting states including Kansas, Ohio, Michigan, and Utah to talk about improving education and about his efforts in Indiana, sometimes testifying before state legislative committees.

“We’re trying to advance a conversation for more comprehensive education reform,” Mr. Bennett said.

On the federal or national level, the impact is more subtle.

“We’re pushing the needle a little bit further and a little bit harder toward reform,” Ms. Barresi said.

The chiefs have endorsed a project by the National Council on Teacher Quality and U.S. News & World Report to grade every teacher-preparation program in the country.

They also supported the House Republicans’ proposal to encourage the growth of high-quality charter schools and released their principles that Congress should heed as it rewrites the ESEA.

Worried about implementation challenges that have plagued Race to the Top states, Chiefs for Change members spoke with Secretary Duncan in August and subsequently issued a letter urging the secretary to stick to his guns as he holds winning states accountable for $4 billion in prize money.

“It’s mostly found within state action and state policy. You’ll see these states expand choice opportunities for parents. They are really working hard to increase transparency on school accountability,” he said. “There has been a very significant impact even though we are very young,” Mr. Smith said.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as ‘Chiefs for Change’ Elbows Into Policy Fight


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