The first meeting of the Education Leaders Council, five years ago, could have been compared to a support-group session, where a handful of conservative- leaning state schools chiefs who felt out of step with more established education groups found solace in one another’s company.
“We were saying things at that time that got us featured on panels as bombasts,” recalled Lisa Graham Keegan, a founder and now the ELC’s chief executive officer. “So when you found a group of people who thought exactly what you thought—that was the genesis of our first meeting.”
Now, this group of renegades is aiming to position itself as a major player in crafting policy in Washington. And with the politically simpatico Bush administration now in place, the ELC’s positions are sounding more like the mainstream line.
About 280 members gathered in Atlanta last week to celebrate their organization’s coming of age and to plot a course for increasing membership and making forays into new issues—a decidedly different tone from that of their first meeting.
The arrival of a new administration has allowed the ELC to make some notable inroads in recent months. One of its founders, Eugene W. Hickok, is now the undersecretary at the Department of Education. The Washington-based group regularly has the ear of White House officials and congressional leaders.
And some of its priorities, such as greater educational accountability through high standards and student assessments, mesh neatly with those of lawmakers who are working on a major federal education bill. At the same time, the ELC is also trying to shed its image as simply a right-of-center alternative to the Council of Chief State School Officers. A cadre of mostly Republican defectors from that organization, complaining it was too aligned with Democratic positions.
Now, the ELC hopes to position itself as an ideologically independent force. Leaders say they plan to rally like-minded state and local groups to gain even more leverage with Congress. The ELC’s emphases have been state and local control, with less federal involvement in schools, and increased school choice. However, here at its sixth annual conference—a two-day event held the last weekend of September—most talk centered around the best ways for the federal and state governments to demand high standards and strict accountability measures.
The group has the potential to be influential and even change the landscape of education groups in Washington, said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization. But Mr. Jennings raised concerns about what he sees as the ELC’s tendency to dig in its heels.
“It’s people saying that they don’t want to compromise, they want to have their point of view put out pure ... that will lead to a rougher policy debate and further Balkanization in the U.S. education system,” said Mr. Jennings, a former longtime aide to House Democrats.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige, a keynote speaker at the Atlanta meeting, urged ELC members to become more involved in the federal legislative process. The Bush administration is working to secure passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization.
“You are the right people at the right time to do something about this,” Mr. Paige said at a gala dinner at the Atlanta History Center, in an upscale suburban neighborhood. “Your voice in the national dialogue must be loud, and we need your help in a big way.”
“Clearly, with the Bush administration, we have an opportunity to be heard,” said Jim Nelson, the Texas commissioner of education and chairman of the ELC board.
The ELC board announced in June that Ms. Keegan, who was then Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, would take the newly created CEO job to oversee and expand the group.
The outspoken Ms. Keegan, who came to prominence with her state’s expansive program of charter schools, has helped secure a $5 million Education Department grant. The competitive grant, from the Fund for the Improvement of Education, is intended to help create a national standard for teachers from nontraditional backgrounds.
Ms. Keegan’s plans for pushing a broader agenda for the group include the new teacher-quality initiative funded by the grant. The effort will include the development of tests to gauge educators’ knowledge of the subjects they teach.
The one thing that did not change at this conference was the ELC’s tendency to lob rhetorical grenades at what they perceive to be the status quo in education. In several sessions, panelists blasted colleges of education for, in their estimation, producing low-quality teachers and being out of touch with the precollegiate classroom.
The grant money, meanwhile, has allowed the group to expand its full-time staff from three to seven people, and Ms. Keegan expects it to grow to a dozen or more by the end of this year. Membership is now about 550, about 10 percent above a year ago.
Mostly, the group draws high-ranking educators and politicians from the CCSSO and National Association of State Boards of Education. But as part of its reorganization, Ms. Keegan hopes to bring in a wider range of members from local school boards, other groups, and parents.
Part of a state chief’s job, she added, is to work with a wide range of organizations within each state, so the ELC does not expect members to withdraw their other memberships.