Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona’s high-profile schools chief, is leaving her post there to head the Education Leaders Council in Washington, a move supporters hope will launch the group into greater prominence.
Ms. Keegan, a Republican, has served six years as state superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, where she has been an outspoken proponent of tough standards and state testing for schools, more education funding, and parental choice. Her resignation, announced last week, will take effect May 11.
“This is not a decision I have come to lightly, but one I feel will be best for the state and for the continuing advance of education reform,” she said in a statement. “What I will be doing for ELC will not be that different from what I have done in Arizona.”
Ms. Keegan, a former state legislator who headed the House education committee, was one of five schools chiefs who founded the ELC in 1995 with the aim of creating an alternative to the Council of Chief State School Officers, the main group representing state superintendents and commissioners of education. The Education Leaders Council now includes eight chiefs and about a dozen state school boards, as well as other state and federal officials. It supports strong accountability systems linked to rigorous standards, more flexibility for states and districts in spending federal aid, and charter schools.
“This is the right spot for her,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts school board and a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute in New York City. “She will be an electrifying presence on the national education stage.”
Julie M. Williams, the ELC’s president, joined Ms. Thernstrom, who serves on its board, in predicting that Ms. Keegan will transform the organization. They expect it to grow in size, power, and effectiveness after Ms. Keegan takes the reins next month with the title of chief executive officer.
The council currently has just three full-time employees. Ms. Keegan’s top lieutenants in Arizona, Associate Superintendents Billie Orr and John Schilling, will join her at the ELC. Ms. Keegan, 41, will split her time between Washington and Arizona.
Timing a Surprise
Ms. Keegan’s departure comes as Arizona’s public schools are celebrating an infusion of millions of dollars into teacher salaries and facilities, thanks to a sales-tax increase, but also as the state’s new exam system is faltering.
Along with Gov. Jane Dee Hull, Ms. Keegan campaigned vigorously for the tax increase, which voters approved last fall. She has also been the greatest champion of the state’s student-assessment system, known as the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, which has become snarled in controversy over when it should become a requirement for high school graduation.
The legislative session just ended in Arizona was a difficult one for Ms. Keegan. But her departure for a job with greater national exposure had been rumored for some time, especially after she campaigned last year for former presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona and then for now-President Bush. In any case, her second four-year term as superintendent would be up in early 2003, and term limits would prevent her from seeking another.
Many Arizona educators questioned Ms. Keegan’s commitment to public education as she pushed hard for charter schools and vouchers that could be used to send children to private schools. Arizona now has the largest number of charter schools of any state in the nation, but no plan for vouchers.
Gov. Hull, a Republican, is expected to appoint a replacement to Ms. Keegan soon. Voters will elect a superintendent next year.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Arizona Chief Quits To Head Education Leaders Council