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Published in Print: March 30, 2016, as State Boards Feel New Need To Flex Muscles

State School Boards Feel New Urgency to Flex Muscles

Arizona State Sens. Kimberly Yee, center, and Sylvia Allen watch as Sen. Jeff Dial explains his support for legislation clarifying the powers of the state school board and the state superintendent.
Arizona State Sens. Kimberly Yee, center, and Sylvia Allen watch as Sen. Jeff Dial explains his support for legislation clarifying the powers of the state school board and the state superintendent.
—Bob Christie/AP

ESSA seen adding to urgency as others eye policy leverage

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State boards of education are seeking to reassert their influence in the advent of the Every Student Succeeds Act, as much of the decisionmaking around standards, assessments, and accountability devolves back from federal to state control.

Yet those boards—many of them a blend of retired educators and business leaders who take office by appointment or election, depending on the state—often find themselves squeezed between local boards, state education departments, and legislatures over who's calling the policy shots.

All those entities are expected to vie for a share of the flexibility under a newly revised federal K-12 law, which gives states greater authority to design school- and teacher-accountability systems as they see fit.

It's a volatile moment for power sharing. This legislative session, state board members in a number of states have spent time stalking the capitol chambers to block or modify legislation that would drastically alter state standards or prescribe the details of statewide accountability systems.

And this year alone, several states saw measures that would either strip or bolster boards' authority. In Kansas, for example, lawmakers proposed a bill that would have prevented its board from using any standards similar to the Common Core State Standards. (It was defeated last week.) In Georgia, lawmakers passed a bill that would ban the board from accepting any federal money above $10 million without the legislature's permission. It was punishment, the state board chairman said, for the board accepting millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top funds. As of last week, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal hadn't signed it.

On the other hand, a bill in Arizona sought to remove most of the state education department's staff and place the workers under the board's authority. It was defeated in the House last week.

Unique Position

Board members, who convene in Washington next week for their legislative conference, argue that they are in a unique position to set state education agendas in the ESSA era.

With many state education departments hollowed out by budget cuts and the average tenure of state superintendents now three years, state boards argue that they represent a permanent fixture focused exclusively on statewide education policy.

"Our perspective is a statewide perspective," Mike Royal, the chairman of Georgia's state board of education, said last week as state lawmakers worked to wrap up their legislative session.

But state superintendents and legislators can have very different viewpoints.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas appears before the Senate Education Committee in Phoenix, Ariz., on on Feb. 4. Douglas tried to persuade the committee not to advance a bill she contends gives some of her powers to the Board of Education. The committee passed the bill on a 5-2 vote.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas appears before the Senate Education Committee in Phoenix, Ariz., on on Feb. 4. Douglas tried to persuade the committee not to advance a bill she contends gives some of her powers to the Board of Education. The committee passed the bill on a 5-2 vote.
—Bob Christie/AP

"Our board meets maybe 10 times a year for two to four hours. Many of them are laypeople," said Arizona schools Superintendent Diane Douglas, who has sued her board, accusing it of overstepping its authority. The board in turn has also sued Douglas.

"They're tasked with overseeing policy, but they're not the ones who are in the fields of Arizona each and every day to know what the needs of educators are."

But Arizona board member Tim Carter said that the board's role as the chief policymaker is enshrined in the state's constitution and that the lawsuits have ground the productivity of the department to a halt.

"Anytime you have one group that makes the policy and the other group that's responsible for carrying out the policy, those two things have to be in sync with one another," said Carter, who is also the superintendent of Arizona's Yavapai County schools. "I think it's clear that we haven't been working as efficiently as we could."

The board members who meet in Washington aim to map out a strategy to handle the new policy environment under ESSA. They'll discuss building community support, learn how to craft their own accountability systems, and hear from U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

"There's tremendous optimism, but [our members] are also nervous," said Kristen Amundson, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. "Now's our time to set a strategy and a vision to create equity, high standards, and hold educators accountable." Over the past several years, the membership of state boards has become younger and more diverse, Amundson said. While, in the past, sitting on a state board was the crown jewel for an accomplished educator, board members now range from bankers, lawyers, and doctors to outspoken parents.

Influence on Display

Board members in 35 states are appointed by either governors or legislatures, and in eight states, they're elected. In six states, board members are a mix of elected and appointed. (Minnesota doesn't have a board of education.)

State board members' influence was on display in New York last week when newly appointed board of regents Chancellor Betty Rosa added fuel to the debate about parents opting their children out of standardized tests by saying she'd do so, too, if she were a parent.

Residents in the East Texas region will soon decide whether to elect to the state board Mary Lou Bruner, a retired kindergarten teacher who has said in widely publicized Facebook posts that she believes that a young President Barack Obama worked as a gay prostitute, that the country should ban Muslims, and that the Democratic Party killed President John F. Kennedy.

In many instances, though, board members are inconspicuous stewards convening in sparsely attended, dayslong meetings where they debate education policy.

The ESSA law adds plenty more to their plate. In the coming months, boards will be tasked with revising teacher evaluations, school report cards, and ways to intervene in their lowest-performing schools.

"For boards that have already been engaged in the process and taking responsibility and control of their own house, they will be fine," said Royal, the Georgia board chairman. "But for the ones who have been hands-off, they are going to have to do some major catching up. Many are going to have to make some, 'Ready, aim, fire!' decisions."

According to research soon to be released by NASBE, in at least 32 states, state boards have constitutional or statutory authority over their state's assessments, while 45 state boards have authority over their academic standards.

Legislators don't want to be left out of the action, however: The National Conference of State Legislatures says more than 500 bills regarding state standards and assessments have been proposed across the country so far this year.

"It's simply a matter of legislators wanting to improve the outcome for kids," said Jennifer Thomsen, a research fellow with the Education Commission of the States, which tracks education legislation and includes state legislators among its commissioners. "Education is a hot topic, and they hear from their constituents a lot. There's a certain amount of, 'We can't do nothing, we have to try something.' "

Rep. Reginald Bolding, a Democrat who serves on Arizona's House education committee, said legislators want to weigh in on education policy because so much of the state's budget is spent on education.

"We want to have more control over the largest budget area," Bolding said.

Mixed Relationship

The relationship between legislators and boards can be tense.

"Some legislators write education policy that comes from a philosophical and ideological position rather than a practical and knowledgeable one," said Jim McNiece, the chairman of Kansas' school board."When we work together, we listen to each other and we can have a proactive conversation. When we're not paying attention to each other or we're trying to promote some sort of ideology or take some political position, it doesn't work."

The Kansas board, along with its recently appointed superintendent, has gone on a statewide tour, interviewing more than 10,000 people to create a vision plan for the state's department of education.

In Nebraska, after the state was denied a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, the legislature in 2014 passed a bill that required its education department to use an accountability system that places schools in "excellent," "great," "good" or "needs improvement" categories. The board fleshed the law out, specified indicators, and rolled out the plan late last year.

"They're giving us guidance but they're not micromanaging us," said state board member Rachel Wise. "I think we have a pretty good balance."

In Georgia, the board members, who are appointed by the governor, serve seven-year terms. Some are entering their second term.

That tenure has helped the board withstand the turnover of superintendents who have cycled through the department, two in the past five years alone.

Five years ago, the board decided to focus on raising the state's cutoff scores on standardized tests. Despite schools' scores dipping and a widespread cheating scandal, the board stuck with the standards.

"Once they set those expectations, we were able to make decisions that had moved [the state] forward," said state Superintendent Richard Woods.

Vol. 35, Issue 26, Pages 1,19

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