Director Emeriti Stories: Decker Anstrom

IEL Board Director Emeritus Decker Anstrom first became aware of IEL in the mid to late 1970s, while working at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where he was recruited to work on a team called the President’s Reorganization Project. It was set up to fulfill President Jimmy Carter’s promise to reorganize the Government. A central part 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 that administered education-related programs from around the Government as appropriate.

“I was part of that team that worked on and lobbied ultimately to successfully enact legislation creating the federal Department of Education. 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. Sam Halperin’s (IEL founder and former president) name appeared,” shares Anstrom. Sam is “really a legendary education policy leader – he worked on the original legislation that created federal involvement in support for elementary and secondary education, and was IEL President in the mid-70’s. 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 stayed in touch throughout Anstrom’s work in the Carter Administration.

“After President Carter signed the legislation creating the Department, I then moved to the Office of Presidential Personnel in the White House and worked on staffing 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 strong, progressive leadership on education at the federal level,” adds Anstrom. Anstrom remained friends with Halperin after the Carter Administration until Halperin passed away in 2014.

Fast forward a couple of decades. After being out of Washington working on a variety of things over time, Anstrom and his wife returned to the area in 2009.

“I had worked with Lynn Glassman on the Department of Education Project, and she was married to Mike Usdan, former President of IEL,” says Anstrom. “Mike and I started corresponding with each other about our shared interests, and he suggested that I talk with Marty Blank, then IEL President, about perhaps becoming involved with IEL. That’s when I was asked to join the Board, so my involvement with IEL 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 and opportunities that IEL faced, joining the Board.”

Anstrom 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 so I had a lot of home grown interest in education  –  it was always a policy area that I was very interested in,” he shares. “Subsequent to Carter losing in 1980, I then worked on the Walter Mondale Presidential campaign in 1984, and in my portfolio of responsibilities was education policy. Sadly, Mondale lost to Reagan.

“But my interest in education policy continued – and the chance to be involved in it again by joining the IEL Board, which had proven itself as a thought leader on education policy was very attractive to me. There are a few 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 whom are still there. That is always a gating factor for me – respect for the people you might be working with. And I love the focus on leadership. There are lots of policy institutes and think tanks in Washington, 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. 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 has had on equity– and now has really doubled down on in the last decade, is vitally important.”

A staunch supporter of IEL’s mission, Anstrom adds, “We’ve known for a long time that education is a portal for people to have an opportunity in America, and we need to consistently communicate that fact – and build support for leaders and coalitions around it. IEL’s Education Policy Fellowship Program is of course one embodiment of that focus, but there are so many other things that IEL has been doing by being a convener and thought leader on Community Schools and building community capacity and leadership around this really interesting proven model that works in conjunction with 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, to include parents and families, and building capacity at the local level for change,” is where IEL excels. 

He continues, adding that “Washington, I think in general, has not fully understood or fully digested the fact that, particularly when it comes to elementary and secondary education, that while there is an important federal role to play, it is primarily a state and local responsibility. Historically, as I recall, maybe four percent of all money spent on elementary and secondary education came from the federal government. Mondale campaigned to increase that percentage through 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. 

Looking to the future, Anstrom sees IEL’s role as focusing on scaling its work. “There’s always a fascination with finding the new wrinkle or the new, you know, shiny object. But it’s very encouraging to see the coalescing 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 and families all over the country “The important and related part of that is the work that Kwesi Rollins and his team started early on about family and community engagement. I think it’s even more important in a [more polarized] world,” he says. “We need to drive home that getting parents involved in local education 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 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 others on the Board, should continue to have a laser-like focus on equity. We’ve talked as a nation about educational opportunity and equity for decades now, and we’re still so far short of achieving that.”

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