ED Puts One-Stop State Checkups to the Test
Jay Cummings and his staff at the Texas Education Agency spent the past several months preparing for an invasion of 19 federal officials.
The bright side is that the regulatory platoon arrived with intentions of being helpful. And once the group leaves, Uncle Sam won't be back for three or four years.
Texas is the second state to undergo what the Department of Education is calling an integrated review. Instead of monitoring the state's implementation of each federal program in separate visits over several years, the department last week checked up on every federal K-12 program that Texas operates.
The simultaneous review opened up the state's operation of Title I remedial education, special education, vocational education, and smaller programs such as impact aid and professional development.
"We had to sit down and do some joint planning," Mr. Cummings, the state's associate commissioner for the education of special populations and adults, said before the federal monitors arrived last week. "Everyone has had to become more conversant in the overall school-improvement plan in the state."
That's exactly what officials in Washington want to encourage.
"The idea is to get everybody at the table to see how to fit the pieces together," said James W. Kohlmoos, the Education Department's acting deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
Test Will Continue
The experiment, which started with a visit to North Dakota last spring, expands upon last year's reorganization of the department's office of elementary and secondary education.
Before, the office sent people on separate monitoring missions. The K-12 office now sends monitors from all of its programs at the same time.
West Virginia, Florida, New York, and New Mexico will be subject to a similar test invasion early next year, Mr. Kohlmoos said. The department won't decide until at least next year whether to make the pilot project a permanent fixture in the way it monitors states.
While the concept is appealing in theory, the experiment is creating "a lot of work," Mr. Cummings said.
One person on his staff worked full time over several months to coordinate the visit. And the Texas staff conducted a series of meetings both with federal education officials and internally to prepare for last week's evaluations.
Despite the extra work, Mr. Cummings said the changes will be worthwhile if the Education Department delivers on its promise to offer advice in addition to reviewing the state's compliance with federal rules.
"It's not easy to shift from a compliance mode to a technical-assistance focus," he said. "Over time, I think it will grow to be beneficial for both parties."
Mr. Kohlmoos said the department is struggling to find the right balance between its roles as adviser and cop.
"The juxtaposition of compliance and technical-assistance activities has bedeviled teams during the initial reviews," Mr. Kohlmoos said.
In the eight-page report summarizing the North Dakota review, the department team appeared to favor assistance over compliance. The report dedicated only one page to "compliance issues."
The North Dakota integrated-review team included 12 officials from Washington. The group had four Title Ispecialists, two impact aid officials, and experts on federal vocational education, special education, migrant education, Indian education, and bilingual education. Another team member reviewed federally backed school improvement programs formerly knows as Chapter 2.
In filing its final report, the team said it discovered that one district did not know that a 2-year-old change in the Title I law allowed schools to teach limited-English-proficient students through the program. The report also found incomplete paperwork for 20 students in the impact-aid program, and gave the district 45 days to fix the problem.
The rest of the report explained how the federal monitors helped North Dakota understand how to best use its programs.
Title I officials offered a seminar on how the state could track disadvantaged students' achievement to prove the success of their program. They also told state officials how they could win waivers to make their program easier to operate.
Indian education program monitors met with five grant recipients on a reservation and explained applications procedures and budgeting.
To set the balance between assistance and monitoring, Mr. Kohlmoos said department leaders may create a "short and specific" list of the requirements for the assorted federal laws that, "if not attended to, would prevent the program from meeting its mission."
Even though Texas won't be subjected to a site visit for any of its federal programs for a while, Mr. Kohlmoos said the department hopes the new process will foster long-term relationships in which state officials see the benefits of working with the federal government.
"The relationship should be ongoing and get off this continuing adversarial relationship," he said. "We want to have a continuing conversation about how we can provide better services."