Director Emeriti Stories: Decker Anstrom

IEL Board Director Emeritus Decker Anstrom first became aware of IEL in the mid to late 1970’s, while working at the office of Management and Budget, where he was recruited to work on a team call the President’s Reorganization Project, which had been set up to fulfill President Jimmy Carter’s promises to reorganize the Government. A central part of that set of promises that the President had made was to create a new Cabinet-level Department of Education, by taking what was in the old Office of Education out of what was then HEW, now HHS, and then adding other departments and agencies from around the Government as appropriate.

“So I was part of that team that worked on and lobbied ultimately to successfully enact legislation creating the Federal department, and early on
I was looking for people who had a lot of experience and insight about education policy, and also brought some political skills who could help us on this,
and Sam Halperin’s [IEL founder and former president] name appeared,” shares Anstrom. Sam is “really a legendary education policy leader – he worked on the Hill on the original legislation for Federal involvement in elementary and secondary education, and then was actually the founder IEL in 1974. So I reached out to Sam, got to know him, and learned a lot about IEL at that time.”

Halperin proved to be very helpful to Anstrom’s work, and they’ve stayed in touch throughout Anstrom’s work subsequent to the Carter administration. “We also then staffed the first Department of Education from the Cabinet Secretary on down, and Sam was a great resource for the names of people who would bring a lot of the leadership at the Federal level,” adds Anstrom.

Fast forward a couple of decades, after being out of Washington doing a variety of things over time, Anstrom and his wife returned to the area in 2009.
“I had worked with Lynn Lastman on the Department of Education Project, and she was married to Mike Usdan [former President of IEL],” says Anstrom. “And so Mike and I started corresponding with each other, and he suggested that I talk with Marty Blank, [the current IEL President at that time] about perhaps becoming involved with IEL, and that’s actually when I went on the board, then, so my involvement goes back first to the creation of the department of education and the insight Sam and his colleagues provided, and then later, after getting to know, Mike and Marty, and looking at the challenges that IEL faced, really starting around 2009.”

Anstrom’s became a great addition to IEL’s board, having gained an appreciation for education in his early days: “One of the reasons I had been delighted to be recruited to work on the reorganization project team is that my parents were both high school teachers and and so I had a lot of interest in education and it was always a policy area that I was very interested in,” he shares. “Subsequent to Carter losing, I then worked on the Walter Mondale Presidential campaign in 1984, and in my portfolio was education policy. So the opportunity to continue that interest, that started as the son of two teachers, working with an organization that had proven itself as a thought leader on education policy was very attractive to me. An there’s a couple of things that specifically interested me in IEL when I became directly involved on the board – one is I had a lot of respect for Marty and the team, some of which are still there. And and that that’s always a sort of a gating factor for me – do respect the people you might be working with. And I love the focus on leadership. There are lots of policy institutes and think tanks and other things in Washington, but but few of them really recognize the critical role of building leaders and creating leadership capacity, not just among individuals, but also among community organizations and state agencies, and it seemed to me that IEL was really the first. that sort of got that in terms of the education space, and that really interested me a lot. And finally I would say that the consistent focus that IEL had of course, and has really doubled down on in the last decade, is a focus on equity.”

A staunch supporter of IEL’s mission, Anstrom adds, “we’ve known for a long time that education is a portal to people having an opportunity in America, and we haven’t done a very good job of really taking advantage of that fact, and the fact that IEL was very focused on that, also really interested me. [IEL’s Education Policy Fellowship Program] is of course one embodiment of that focus, but there’s so many other things that IEL has been doing through being a convener and and thought leader on Community Schools that is very much aligned to that in terms of building community capacity and leadership and around this really interesting proven model that works around the family and community engagement work. Again, building organizational leaders as well as individual leaders. I just think it’s such an important insight.”

Reflecting on what he thinks others should know about IEL, Anstrom says that, “the notion of leadership broadly defined and building capacity at the local level for change,” is where IEL excels. “[IEL has done] lots of policy papers and things to shoot, and that, and you know people who testify before Congressional committees and all that, and that’s important. But I think this notion of building the capacity for leadership and action at the local and state level is somewhat unique. It’s not completely unique, obviously. But I think of other education policy organizations, and IEL really stands out there, through its component parts.”

He continues, adding that “Washington is, I think in general has not fully understood or fully digested the fact that, particularly when it comes to elementary and secondary education – that is a state and local responsibility. Historically, as I recall, maybe four percent of all money spent on elementary and secondary education comes from the Federal Government. Mondale tried to increase that percentage to a variety of targeted programs. But if you want change in America, particularly in elementary and secondary education, it has to come from the local and State level. And again, I think that’s an insight IEL has had from the beginning. That [federal contribution is ten percent now, which is great – but we still have a long way to go]. Of course, as you know, if you look at the Department of Education, most of the money is in higher education – a lot of that’s in Pell grants and other things that provide access which are vitally important. But in terms of the operation of school districts and state agencies of education, most of that money is state and local.”

Looking to the future, Anstrom sees IEL’s role as focusing on scaling our work. “There’s always a fascination finding the new wrinkle or the new, you know, shiny object. But it’s very encouraging to see the coalescing of of interest in funding around Community Schools, and I think, continuing to get that to scale has such promise for our country and for kids all over the country, and and I think the the related part of that, and obviously the real part of the Community School model is is the work that Kwesi and his team started early on about family and community engagement, and we we sort of assume that. But I think it’s actually even more important in a [more polarized] world,” he says. “[We need to drive home that] getting parents involved in local education is is critical, if you’re really going to address the needs of those communities and of those parents and families. [Collectively] we must constructively get parents and families involved in in education. So those things should be IEL’s focus, but overarching all of that, and Karen [Mapp, IEL’s current Board Chair,] gets enormous credit for this along with with others on the board, but that, as well as really continuing to build with a laser-like focus on equity should be IEL’s focus. We’ve talked about it for decades now, and we’re still so far short of that.”

He continued, adding that “resources are always a frustrating factor. You always want to pick your fights, you know. So much of the challenges I think we face around some of these issues is what happens in schools of education around the country, and you know I’m again no expert, and they’re obviously some very good schools of education. But I I have a sense that in too many places it’s become sort of a credentialing exercise, and not enough of a focus on these kinds of issues like [equity and family and community engagement]. I’d love to see some capacity to dig into that in more depth. And perhaps
make them more agents of change then they maybe are today.”