Changes are afoot at the Education Leader’s Council (ELC), a conservative education reform group that has received more than $23 million in federal funding over the last two years for a project intended to help school leaders use student achievement data to make sound instructional decisions and meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Lisa Graham Keegan, ELC’s chief executive, relinquished her post Oct. 1. Though Keegan will remain with ELC as a member of its board of directors, she turned control of the group over to Theodor Rebarber, a long-time education researcher and contractor for ELC.

Rebarber was president of AccountabilityWorks, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank working to improve standards and accountability in education. The two groups will merge as part of the shake-up.

Educators praise
FTL, despite delays

A preliminary review of the Following the Leaders program, released Sept. 28, reports that 122 participating schools have demonstrated marked improvements in both reading and math scores–sometimes at more than twice the usual state averages. …

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  • Several news outlets, including the Washington Times and Education Week, have reported that Keegan’s tenure as ELC chief was mired in financial discord. The Times, a largely conservative newspaper, has been especially critical of Keegan in recent months, alleging she used federal grant money to help pay exorbitant salaries for top executives–many of whom she knew from her days as head of the Arizona education department.

    Keegan, however, denied speculation that the move was fueled by concerns about the group’s finances, saying she was stepping aside because her contract had expired.

    “This is something that was planned for a long time,” Keegan said, referring to the merger with AccountabilityWorks. “It’s all part of the transition.”

    Keegan isn’t the only ELC executive to relinquish her post amid the controversy. Chief Operating Officer Brian Jones also stepped down, as did the council’s office manager, Angela Miranda. Keegan said the resignations were agreed upon as part of ELC’s merger with AccountabilityWorks and were not the result of problems with staff.

    Despite the changes in leadership, ELC says it will forge ahead with its flagship Following the Leaders (FTL) initiative, a nationwide pilot currently under way in more than 500 schools across 11 states to boost NCLB compliance. The program monitors students’ work through the use of customized assessments aligned with state standards and other technology-based tracking tools (see related story).

    After receiving $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for its launch in 2002, FTL was handed another $20 million in congressional earmarks over the next two years–money critics charge was funneled away from the program to help pay the bloated salaries approved for ELC executives, including Keegan’s $235,000-a-year package.

    Keegan admits to having problems raising outside money but has denied any misuse of federal grants within the organization.

    Her critics aren’t so sure.

    In March, the Times reported that several ELC board members had resigned in protest of Keegan’s handling of the money, citing ethical questions about how she chose to disperse the funds.

    Instead of going out and seeking more money from financial backers to support the organization’s everyday operations, critics allege, Keegan became too reliant on the federal grant money, which they say should have been used solely to build out FTL.

    Chad Miller, ELC’s director of federal programs, said 75 percent of the grant was used for the in-school portion of the program, which provided the data tools and professional development for administrators. The remaining 25 percent went to pay for the second component of the program, which focuses on helping schools provide better supplemental educational services for struggling students. Though Miller said a small portion of the money did go to pay for salaries of ELC employees, including Keegan’s, he refused to elaborate.

    ED officials did not respond to an eSchool News reporter’s telephone calls before press time. But department spokeswoman Susan Aspey was quoted in Education Week on Sept. 23 as saying that ELC had not done anything that would require the agency to revoke its funding.

    “They have complied with every request we have made of them, and any concerns that we had earlier this year appear to have been resolved,” she wrote in an eMail message to the newspaper.

    Founded in 1995 during the Clinton administration by a group of conservative-leaning state education officials, ELC was intended to be a voice for educational change outside the political establishment. But with a friendlier administration now in place in Washington, some critics contend the group has become a tool to promote Bush administration policies.

    Cheri Pierson Yecke, a former education commissioner in Virginia and Minnesota, was among the ELC board members who resigned in March.

    “ELC began as the premier voice of genuine education reform, challenging the status quo as the David in a Goliath world,” she told The Washington Times for a Sept. 27 story. “Those of us associated with ELC in the early days are profoundly disappointed at how the opportunity to lead has been so woefully squandered.”

    Chester Finn, a conservative education analyst who serves with Keegan on the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, wrote a memorandum criticizing the ELC for its reliance on federal funds and questioning whether the money was keeping the group from raising objective criticisms about NCLB.

    Finn declined to go on record with eSchool News about the controversy, stating in an eMail message that it was a topic he had “no desire to talk about.” But in a letter obtained by the Times, Finn criticized ELC for a lack of vision and purpose, calling the group “dormant and confused as to role and message.”

    He blasted the organization for its ties to what he called a “friendly government” and said ELC had become too dependent upon receiving federal dollars “to remain contrarian or critical.”

    Andrew Rotherham, director of the 21st Century Skills Project for the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington-based action group with ties to the Democratic Leadership Council, doesn’t see anything wrong with an organization using its ties to the current political administration to win funding for non-competitive grants.

    “The process is perfectly legal,” he said. The real question is whether ELC actually uses the money it receives to accomplish the work it set out to do.

    “Just getting federal money is not the issue … it’s what you do with it,” he said. “Have they produced what the money was intended to produce?”

    Rotherham said the merger likely will give ELC more capability to work with states in achieving the technical aspects of the law–though he’s not sure that’s what ELC should be doing.

    It really “muddies the waters” in terms of what the group’s mission is, he said, adding that ELC has not been very clear with the public about its goals to date. “No one knows what direction the group is heading in,” he said.

    As its new chief executive, Rebarber said he plans to keep ELC’s focus on standards, testing, and accountability. He said he also wants to explore new opportunities for projects dealing with charter schools, supplemental education services, and school choice, as well as teacher quality and recruitment and the usefulness of scientifically based research in education reform.

    Rebarber said the group’s merger with AccountabilityWorks should eliminate any lingering questions about ELC’s finances. As the two groups become one, Rebarber said, he’ll likely use some of the money brought in through AccountabilityWorks’ testing programs to fund both new and ongoing ELC initiatives.

    In hopes of silencing its critics, ELC has commissioned independent research firm SRI International to conduct a scientifically based analysis of FTL’s effectiveness in schools. If the results come back favorably, which he believes they will, Rebarber said the research will speak for itself.

    “FTL is an integral part of what ELC is all about,” he said. “We don’t necessarily believe that there is anything wrong with receiving federal money as a catalyst for school-level reform.”

    Links:

    Education Leaders Council
    http://www.educationleaders.org

    Progressive Policy Institute
    http://www.ppionline.org