Gordon M. Ambach, the dean of Washington education association leaders, has announced that he will retire next summer after 13 years of leading the Council of Chief State School Officers.
As the executive director of the lobbying and support group for state schools chiefs, Mr. Ambach, 65, has presided over an expansion of the Washington-based organization that paralleled the rise in prominence of education on the national stage. Under his leadership, the council grew from a $2.5 million-a- year operation employing 18 people to one with 65 employees and a budget of $14 million, much of it from grants.
During his tenure, Mr. Ambach became a leading voice in education debates on Capitol Hill. Among those debates were those surrounding enactment of the Goals 2000 legislation in 1994, which stepped up federal incentives for state and local efforts to improve student achievement, and two reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that gave major roles to state education agencies.
Just as he pushed for those measures, Mr. Ambach fought vigorously against a proposal by Republican leaders in Congress to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education in the mid-1990s. He also supported participation in international research projects such as the influential Third International Mathematics and Science Study, as well as expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
“My advocacy has always been to link the states and the federal government as close as you possibly can, to get the maximum effect you can,” Mr. Ambach said in an interview last week.
Rival Group Formed
But that advocacy, combined with the politically charged climate surrounding education in recent years, has cost the CCSSO, too. In 1995, four state schools chiefs—all Republicans—pulled out of the organization and formed the rival Education Leaders Council. Some observers have suggested that a factor in that break was the view among some GOP education leaders that the council tended to favor Democratic positions, a perception fueled by Mr. Ambach’s service on President Clinton’s post-election transition team in 1992.
Today the Education Leaders Council—which has advocated such positions as minimizing federal involvement in education and expanding school choice—counts eight state chiefs among its members, four of whom do not belong to the CCSSO.
Mr. Ambach said he believes the CCSSO has and will continue to welcome members of both major political parties with diverse points of view.
Before heading the CCSSO, Mr. Ambach was New York state’s education commissioner for a decade, beginning in 1977. During that time, he served for six years on the board of the state chiefs’ council and one year as its president.
Colleagues and council members praised Mr. Ambach’s effective leadership in volatile state and federal political environments.
“He has given their organization a voice that is considerably stronger than it used to be,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which is sometimes at odds with the CCSSO. “Part of it is smarts, part of it is experience, and part of it is the guy is utterly relentless.”
Maryland’s state superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, credited Mr. Ambach with “embracing and trying to do the necessary professional development in standards-based reform” among state chiefs, despite high turnover in the group. In Congress, she said, “his ability and credibility” have helped shape legislation in a way that has enhanced state efforts.
Still, the pullout of four state chiefs did “undermine the perception of unanimity on [Capitol] Hill,” which was a blow to the organization, according to Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Bush. “I think it will be interesting to see if the chief who is selected to succeed him is someone who is a consensus builder and a centrist ... and who can bring the two organizations together.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Ambach To Retire as Director of Council Of State Schools Chiefs