- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The pro-Bush Education Leaders Council has canceled a contract for an independent evaluation of its $23.5 million federally funded computerized school instructional project, called Following the Leaders, just as the study was to get under way in 11 states.

Lisa Graham Keegan, the council’s $235,000-a-year chief executive, canceled the contract with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation after its president, Chester E. Finn Jr., warned Mrs. Keegan and William J. Moloney, who was chairman of her board of directors, that the Education Leaders Council (ELC) was losing its influence as a leading education reform group because of overdependence on federal project money.

Mr. Finn, an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, warned in a memo last spring that “ELC is not currently a visible or audible influence on federal education policy. That’s partly because we have a friendly government, of course, but it’s also partly because ELC, having grown heavily dependent on federal funding — much like the ‘blob’ [education establishment] organizations — is no longer free as it once was to be contrarian or critical,” he said.

Council records show more than half of the six-figure salaries of ELC’s six top officers were paid from the Following the Leaders (FTL) project and one other multimillion-dollar federal grant obtained in 2003. But the council’s auditor concluded in May that ELC’s records showed that the amount of time the executives spent on the federal projects was not commensurate with their salaries.

Some ELC directors believe Mrs. Keegan’s cancellation of the Fordham evaluation contract was retaliation against Mr. Finn and motivated by fear that the FTL evaluation would not be positive.

Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts state education board and U.S. Civil Rights Commission, has asked Jim Horne, Florida education commissioner and current ELC chairman, to put the matter on the board’s agenda for a meeting tomorrow morning, said Mr. Moloney, who resigned as chairman in December.

Mrs. Thernstrom, a leading author with her husband, Stephan, of several books on the racial achievement gap, declined to comment on the ELC dispute.

Mrs. Keegan said she canceled the Fordham contract because the evaluation was not getting started fast enough.

Mr. Finn had complained that Achievement Technologies of Columbia, Md., the company that produces the FTL classroom computer software, withheld school data needed for the study, causing its start to be delayed a year.

The ELC chief and Jack Dolan, president of Achievement Technologies, did not respond to inquiries by The Washington Times about withholding data.

Mr. Horne said he has “total confidence” in Mrs. Keegan and would let the ELC board decide what to do.

Mrs. Keegan canceled the Fordham contract in a Dec. 15 letter to Mr. Finn, just as chief evaluator Margaret “Macke” Raymond of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Credo) at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution prepared to launch the field study in about 85 participating school districts.

Mrs. Keegan told Mr. Finn the evaluation design to compare student achievement in “control schools within the same district as the implementation schools was an area of deep concern to ELC … and those fears seem to have been justified.”

But Mrs. Raymond said in an interview, “The research design was approved by them and repeatedly re-approved. Never did they ask to fall back and do a different design.” She provided documentation of approval by Mrs. Keegan and other ELC officials.

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