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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Where the Bush-Obama Education Era Veered into Magical Thinking

By Guest Blogger — November 12, 2018 4 min read
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For the next few weeks, Rick will be out and about discussing his new edited volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. While he’s away, several of the contributors have agreed to stop by and offer their reflections on what we’ve learned from the Bush-Obama era. This week, you’ll hear from Sara Dahill-Brown, an associate professor of political science at Wake Forest. Her blog posts will consider how states handled the challenges posed by the Bush-Obama era and what it all teaches about the dynamics of federalism.

Greetings! It’s so nice to be back here! A special thanks to Rick for letting me kick the ball around on his turf this week, and to Rick and his co-editor Mike McShane for bringing all of us together to reflect, debate, and write about the lessons we learned in Bush-Obama School Reform.

Throughout the volume, several of us explored how and when the state and federal governments partnered effectively to make schools better for kids, parents, and communities—and why in many cases these collaborations faltered. For my part, I took a close look at the role of state education agencies (SEAs) in implementing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), competing under Race to the Top (RTTT), and negotiating waivers.

In my retrospective analysis, one of the things that struck me most was the fact that the federal government demanded a lot of SEAs during the Bush and Obama presidencies. More often than not, it seemed very clear that SEAs lacked the necessary capacities to lead the ambitious reforms with which they were tasked. Perhaps I am judging unfairly from my vantage point in time, but it seems like this was knowable.

In 2002, when NCLB was enacted, accountability policies were on the rise, and SEA authority was growing. Nonetheless, most SEAs functioned primarily as conduits for state and federal dollars, licensure bodies, and enforcers of federal mandates. They were more often compliance-monitoring agencies, not generally tasked with the major work of innovating, implementing, and defending new programs. Even for those administering accountability systems, the role was relatively new.

Moreover, before NCLB was signed into law, a series of fiscal crises had quite dramatically kneecapped SEAs around the country. The 1990s technology boom was fading, the dot-com bubble burst, and the country’s economy had been rocked by the terrorist attacks of September 11th. By the end of October 2001, states found themselves facing massive deficits: $1.6 billion in Arkansas, $14 billion in California, $773 million in Delaware, to name just a few. Governors and legislators often viewed SEA budgets and staff as prime targets for cutting back, because reducing bureaucratic agencies did not usually upset important political constituencies.

Circumstances were, perhaps, even more bleak when RTTT was announced in the midst of the Great Recession, meaning that SEAs were asked once more to design and implement a systemic overhaul of their states’ education systems at precisely the moment their resources were most scarce.

Agency cuts were persistent. In a 2007 report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP), 21 SEAs reported that fiscal constraints, including deficits, slashed agency budgets, and programmatic cuts, had led to struggles during the first years of implementing NCLB. Similarly, in a 2013 report from the CEP, across all the areas of the Common Core State Standards implementation, only one-quarter of surveyed states reported having adequate funding, staff, and expertise to carry out their responsibilities.

I believe that SEAs were (and are) mostly staffed by well-intentioned, hard-working, capable people, but this combination of escalating responsibilities and acutely diminished resources in the form of money and staff was not a reliable recipe for success. It contributed to implementation efforts that were adaptive at best (meaning SEAs attempted to stay faithful to the spirit of the law while coping with limited capacity), and subversive at worst (meaning that SEAs sought to undermine or avoid work envisioned by designers).

Such implementation games, though understandable given the constraints facing SEAs, ultimately undermine public faith in vital institutions and therefore future efforts to reform schools and implement new programs.

All of this means that policymakers must give consideration to capacity rather than allowing magical or wishful thinking to take over. In a layered federal system, the steps between a law’s aims and what happens on the ground are many. SEAs are a critical link in that chain.

Policymakers do not need to think through every minor step of the implementation process (in fact, that type of micromanaging is deeply problematic). They do need to ask and answer questions about who will be responsible for making a given program happen and follow up to learn whether those people and agencies have the money, expertise, structure, and connections to translate an abstract policy into concrete action.

If the answer is no, investments might be made to build the needed capacity. This was an explicit part of federal policy under the Bush and Obama administrations with respect to both school turnaround and longitudinal data systems. SEAs have since found some success in developing supportive models and making use of this new technology. Yet this is not the only path forward. Policymakers might also scale back their policy goals, simplify programs, or look for other implementers. The key is to confront the world as it is, rather than as we might wish it to be.

Sara Dahill-Brown

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.