WASHINGTON -- When Arizona schools superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan and a group of predominantly conservative educators began the Education Leaders Council in 1995, their proclaimed goal was to upset an educational establishment long dominated by the Democrats and left-leaning teachers unions.
Nearly a decade later, Keegan and her allies have become the establishment -- and the left is crying foul.
People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, recently released a report depicting Keegan's group as the center of "a network of right-wing foundations" that have received more than $77 million in U.S. Department of Education funds to promote their "school privatization" agenda. The report notes that a co-founder of the council, former Pennsylvania education secretary Eugene W. Hickok, is now the second-ranking official at the federal agency.
While there is a tradition of Republican and Democratic administrations rewarding allies, critics argue that the amount of money steered toward conservative educational groups by the Bush administration far exceeds the practices of the past.
"It's a farce," said Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country. "On the one hand, we have the Bush administration claiming that its education reforms are all scientifically based, and on the other hand we see the administration providing a grab bag of Santa gifts to conservative groups."
The People for the American Way report "exposes a stealth campaign by the administration to reward groups that support its private-school voucher agenda at the expense of strengthening public schools," said Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee.
"Balderdash," said Education Undersecretary Hickok. If there were any favoritism, he said, it was "favoritism in the sense that we support those organizations that support No Child Left Behind," a law President Bush signed in January 2002 that intends to raise educational standards through high- stakes testing and better-qualified teachers.
"Welcome to the vast right-wing conspiracy," laughed Keegan, chief executive of the Education Leaders Council, who was a candidate for secretary of education after Bush was elected.
Education Department records show that the council received $13.5 million over the last two years for its "Following the Leaders" project, which develops computer programs to monitor implementation of the No Child Left Behind law. A further $45 million in grants has been awarded to groups closely associated with Keegan's organization, such as the National Council on Teacher Quality and the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence.
The bulk of the money the department gave Keegan's network has gone to developing alternative forms of teacher certification. The No Child Left Behind law stipulates that every student has the right to a "fully qualified" teacher, a requirement that has strained traditional teacher training colleges.
Keegan said it was only natural that the Bush administration should want to correct a liberal bias in American education by giving grants to groups that share its philosophy. While she rejects the "right-wing" tag, she says "it is necessary to be ideological in education these days if you want to promote academic standards, school choice and new routes to certifying teachers that work against the grain of current ideas in education."
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