Sunday, September 26, 2004

The head of the pro-Bush Education Leaders Council has resigned along with other top-paid staff in a shake-up as congressional appropriators balked at giving the group another $10 million for the fiscal year beginning next month.

Lisa Graham Keegan, who was making $235,000 a year, will remain in her position as chief executive officer until Oct. 1, according to an announcement by the ELC. She will be replaced by Theodor Rebarber, an education-policy analyst and federal contractor for ELC.

Also resigning recently were Brian Jones, ELC’s chief operations officer, and office manager Angela Miranda. The council’s development officer also quit.

The change “will produce an organization well-positioned to provide a strong voice in policy and practice around standards, testing, and accountability; teacher quality; applied scientifically based research; and school choice and supplemental services,” said a statement issued by Mrs. Keegan, who will remain a member of ELC’s board.

ELC officers, led by Jim Horne, did not respond to questions about the shake-up. U.S. Education Department officials and congressional patrons who gave $23.3 million in federal funds to the ELC since 2001 also had no comment.

Founded by conservative state education leaders in 1995, the ELC was beset with discord 16 months ago when Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote a highly critical memorandum that described the group as “dormant and confused as to role and message.”

Mr. Finn, a member of the board of directors with Mrs. Keegan on the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, complained that the ELC “is not currently a visible or audible influence on federal education policy.”

Part of the problem was that “we have a friendly government” in the Bush administration, he said. “But it’s also partly because ELC, having grown heavily dependent on federal funding, is no longer as free as it once was to be contrarian or critical. And it’s because ELC just isn’t tackling issues any longer with vigor. It isn’t speaking out, writing, networking, lobbying [except for earmarks], influencing.”

The problem came to a head this month when ELC had trouble meeting its payroll, said officials close to the organization on the condition of anonymity.

ELC’s payroll of $588,000 in 2001 had ballooned to $1.2 million by 2003. About two-thirds of the payroll was paid from a $10 million congressional earmark for a school-technology program called “Following the Leaders.” The program was being tested in about 500 schools to align classroom instruction at each grade level with state achievement standards and requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Last spring, William J. Moloney, Colorado’s education commissioner and ELC chairman at the time, resigned along with seven other directors. They said they could no longer “be associated with an entity that has lost its moorings and whose credibility has been seriously damaged.”

Cheri Pierson Yecke, formerly education commissioner in Virginia and Minnesota, was among the other directors who resigned March 29.

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

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