Chiefs, Change, Cheers?

Nearly a decade ago, a new organization of chief state school officers was charting new ground.  The Education Leaders Council (ELC) was THE hip group to belong to.  NCLB was the freshly minted law of the land.  Chiefs, influencers, and vendors wanted to be part of the ELC posse, seeing the group as the drivers of NCLB in key states.  And many were believing ELC would overtake the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) as the state supe organization of choice, becoming the state ed policy voice in the country.  Five short years later, ELC was no longer.

Late last year, five up-and-coming, reform-minded chief state school officers announced the launch of “Chiefs for Change,” a group designed to push state-level policy issues from the state supe level.  The founding members were Florida’s Eric Smith, Indiana’s Tony Bennett, Louisiana’s Paul Pastorek, Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist, and Virginia’s Gerard Robinson.  Since establishing the group, Smith has announced he is stepping down from his post as Florida’s top education voice.
Last week, five new members were named to the state ed policy reform cabal.  The new five are Maine’s Stephen Bowen, New Jersey’s Chris Cerf, New Mexico’s Hanna Skandera, Oklahoma’s Janet Barresi, and Tennessee’s Kevin Huffman.
Chiefs for Change is promising to be very much a policy-driving organization, far more so than CCSSO.  Its nine and a half members (including Smith) are committed to finding a common voice on issues like teacher evaluation and testing.  They clearly will offer some rhetorical hand grenades when it comes to ESEA reauthorization.  So where will they come down on the issues?
While many are quick to say the group is non-partisan (or at least bi-partisan), take a look at the roster.  Of the 10 members, nine represent states helmed by Republican governors, and one (RI) now represents an independent governor.  One can also find deep roots to both the Jeb Bush family tree of ed reformers, as well as to the formal “Education Reform” community.  And there are a number of states represented who now have ties to Michelle Rhee and her relatively new “StudentsFirst” organization.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  It is still too early to tell.  Twenty percent of the nation’s chief state school officers have decided to join together to offer a louder, more coordinated voice on education policy.  Those chiefs sing from the same hymnal on many of the key policy issues of the day.  Some states (Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Indiana) are now seen as major ed reform states.  Others (Virginia, New Jersey, Maine) can best be called defenders of the status quo, at least historically.  All (except for Indiana and Louisiana) are working with governors in the first halves of their terms, meaning they may have real time to bring real change. 
What’s left to be seen is HOW Chiefs for Change plans to operate.  In deconstructing ELC, one of its challenges is it tried to out-CCSSO CCSSO, building a similar model, similar management structure, and similar expectations.  Instead of being a nimble rump group focused on change, it almost tried to build CCSSO 2.0.  And we clearly didn’t need a newer version of the established organization.
So the question before Chiefs is how it functions.  If it throws aside process in favor of results, it has potential.  If it is designed to serve as an advocacy soapbox for reform-minded supes, it brings promise.  And if it is willing to take provocative stances on complex and controversial policy issues, it could signal progress.
At this point, Chiefs for Change doesn’t need to look to recruit new members or scope out locations for its 2012 annual conference.  It has critical mass, and it has some forward-looking chiefs who know how to use 21st century communications tools to replace those by-gone days of three-day conferences.  Instead, Chiefs for Change needs its nail its version of 95 Theses to the schoolhouse door.  And it needs to do so now, before ESEA is rewritten.  
We all recognize that the states are where ed policy action is happening.  The feds have played their hand, and are now looking for some additional dollars to buy back into the game.  Statehouses now have the power, and state chiefs are holding all the cards.  If we are going to see real movement in the area of school improvement, we need a real call to action at the state level.  Chiefs for Change could be that vehicle, if it learns from the past and engages for the future.

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