If the Education Leaders Council needed to prove that it has progressed from splinter group to big-stick status, the group’s sixth annual conference seemed a good time for its organizers to boast how far the group—and its ideas about education—have come.
The ELC, a Washington-based organization largely founded as an alternative to the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, has been hoping to expand its role in education policy and to attract members outside its core group of Republican state leaders.
And now it has the chance: The group has received a major financial and policy-shaping boost from the Department of Education: a $5 million federal grant to form a new teacher-certification board.
The ELC will join with the National Council on Teacher Quality, a panel set up last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based policy group, headed by Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan. The initiative aims to create new tests to recognize veteran teachers for excellent performance, ensure new teachers have the skills they need, and help career-changers enter teaching.
The announcement came in the midst of sessions here Sept. 28-29 at which participants criticized the Education Department for awarding research grants that produce scholarship deemed low in quality and too survey-oriented.
While some other conservative-leaning groups criticize dependence on federal grants, the ELC’s chief executive, former Arizona schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, said she applied for the grant because her group believes it can make better use of the money than other organizations would.
U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson, a Republican who represents former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s old district just north of Atlanta, called on Congress to enact President Bush’s education plan. And he argued for big changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to allow schools more control over student discipline and to reduce the number of children enrolled in special education.
Mr. Isakson formerly chaired the Georgia state school board as an appointee of then-Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat who is now in the U.S. Senate.
In speaking to the ELC, Mr. Isakson had calming words for members of the audience who were concerned about the Bush plan’s use of the National Assessment of Education Progress for accountability purposes.
“Everybody is paranoid it’s going to mean a national curriculum,” he said, arguing that it would mean the contrary. “This issue is a nonissue. It’s all in the perception and never in the reality.”
Rep. Isakson said that President Bush’s education plan, now pending in a House-Senate conference committee, deserves to pass, given that both Democrats and Republicans have found so much agreement on the key provisions. “It was honestly the most intellectually honest debate I’ve seen in my three years in Congress,” he said.
Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, an ELC founder when he was Pennsylvania’s top education official, spoke about how the Education Department wants to address serious deficiencies in the world of education research. “You have a system that is designed to protect itself for forever,” the former Pennsylvania education commissioner contended.
He said the department would work to make sure the Bush education agenda takes hold. “For the first time, if we do this right, it will be impossible to ignore failure,” he said.
But for all the victory speeches, there were voices of warning. James A. Peyser, chairman of the Massachusetts board of education, said determining which schools succeed and which ones don’t under the plan’s accountability provisions would be the easy part.
“It’s much harder to figure out what to do when the turnaround doesn’t work,” Mr. Peyser said, adding that changes in school leadership, mobility of students, and shifting school attendance boundaries pose significant obstacles.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks apparently kept some ELC members from attending the conference, either because they were too busy, or too wary of air travel. Officials of the group said 280 people attended the conference, 100 fewer than had registered.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige made the trip, and was the keynote speaker at a dinner program held at the Atlanta History Center, a Civil War museum. President Bush was to have followed up with a speech of his own, but the events of recent weeks kept the president busy in Washington.
Mr. Paige called for passage of the president’s education plan, and said the voices of ELC members were especially important as the nation determines how it will seek to improve schools.
“You’re doing God’s work,” he said, and added: “You are the right people at the right time to do something about it.”
He said that a recent visit to schools near the site of the devastated World Trade Center in New York City had been among the most sobering experiences of his entire life. The secretary said he was inspired by the educators who had sheltered children from smoke and ashes after the terrorists struck, and have taught them and encouraged them in the days since.
“Teachers are American heroes,” Mr. Paige said. “We’ve just got to free them from some of their organizations.”
—Alan Richard & Joetta L. Sack