Education Funding

Lean State Finances Put Squeeze on Policy Groups

By Alan Richard — April 30, 2003 5 min read
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The awful budget situations in many states are also taking a toll on most of the leading national organizations that help states shape education policies.

The Education Commission of the States may be the hardest hit so far.

A compact of governors, legislatures, and state education officials best known for its information clearinghouse, the Denver-based ECS has been forced to cut its staff and rework its budget in recent months.

“We’ve cut every conceivable thing we could find in our budget that was not absolutely required,” ECS President Ted Sanders said in an interview.

Part of the problem stems from the budget shortfalls in a majority of states that are making it hard for some to pay dues, register for conferences, and hire the services of such groups.

The Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Association of State Boards of Education all report that states are being careful with their spending—and that the caution is rippling through the policy groups.

“We’re in a big hole right now,” said David Griffith, the spokesman for the group of state education boards, known as NASBE, in Alexandria, Va. His group and the other nonprofit organizations are limiting their own travel budgets and delaying new hires to deal with fallout from state budget shortfalls.

At the ECS, Mr. Sanders said he has cut five positions on the staff, including a vice president’s post, resulting in four layoffs. The fifth position was already open. He also plans to furlough employees assigned to specific projects when funding for the projects dries up, which has led to at least one other resignation. The organization now has 69 permanent employees.

State dues are running $275,000 short at the ECS this year, with California and Wisconsin delaying their full payments because of budget constraints, Mr. Sanders said.

He added that overall ECS revenue is up 16 percent from last year, thanks to new grants from private foundations and corporate partners. The group, which has an annual budget of about $13 million, is saving almost $350,000 in cuts from travel, training, technology, and publications costs.

Groups Strapped

At the Council of Chief State School Officers, the governing board recently decided not to raise state dues for this year, fearing the CCSSO might lose member states.

Dues for membership in the state-policy groups range from about $13,000 for the smaller states and organizations to $130,000 for the larger states’ ECS dues.

Scott Montgomery, the chief of staff for the Washington-based CCSSO, said his organization is trying to focus on what its members want the most: help with implementing the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

“We’ve actually made some contingencies in our own budget in case a certain percentage of states can’t pay their dues,” Mr. Montgomery said. “Who knows what the future will bring? Everybody’s in a crisis.”

At NASBE, Mr. Griffith said attendance was solid at the group’s recent Washington conference for state board members on the new federal law. But he pointed out: “Had this been a better time, I think the attendance would have been much higher.”

The state legislatures’ group in Denver also is watching its pennies, said NCSL spokesman Gene Rose. “We do have some positions that are being left open, and we’re having to watch our expenses,” he said.

The Education Leaders Council in Washington, founded as a conservative group for state-level education leaders, depends on federal money for special projects and on individual, inexpensive dues. Spokeswoman Kimberly Tulp said those factors have kept the small organization from feeling much effects from state budget crises.

Leaders of the state- policy organizations agree that states need their help more than ever, which bodes well for the groups’ long-term finances.

Treading Carefully

Until state revenues return to normal, though, they expect to make some difficult decisions in the times to come.

“I think it’s going to be tougher, not easier, in the days ahead,” said Mr. Sanders of the ECS. “And I worry a little bit personally that the states’ financial dilemma is going to be deeper and last longer than what we’ve experienced at least in my 40 years working with state policy.”

The ECS apparently didn’t help its case when it released a report recently that showed how some states were moving slowly to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. Observers can look at colorful charts on the ECS Web site to see which states have policies in place that meet new federal rules on teacher quality, test-score analysis, and more.

Suellen K. Reed

The exposure of possible shortcomings in those state policies created tension between the ECS and leaders in some member states. “I don’t think our initial experience with the survey was a very good one,” said Suellen K. Reed, the state superintendent in Indiana.

“They do some things that are very helpful,” she added, expressing her appreciation for the work of the ECS. But releasing the report as state officials are sorting through the new federal requirements while dealing with budget crises of their own, however, “was not helpful,” she said.

Mr. Sanders acknowledged criticism over the report, but the former deputy U.S. education secretary and state superintendent in Ohio and Illinois said the fallout hadn’t hurt his group’s finances.

“We’ve got a couple of the chief state schools officers who are not particularly enamored with the analytical work we’ve done on ‘No Child Left Behind,’” he said. “But for the most part, the reaction we’ve had from the states relative to that analysis has been far more positive than negative.”

Iowa’s state education director, Ted Stilwell, said he spoke with Mr. Sanders about the report. But Mr. Stilwell blamed the dust-up on the political situation state leaders and policy groups face right now.

“That’s just more symptomatic of the pressures on anybody,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to sort out what their role is. I’m not surprised that there are some bumps in the road.”

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