Va. Overhauls Department To Shift Focus From Regulation toResearch and Service

By Peter Schmidt — September 19, 1990 4 min read

The Virginia Board of Education has embarked on what is being described as the boldest reorganization so far of a state education department, by shifting the role of the agency from regulation to research and service.

“We are going to take the department, put it in a box, wrap a bow around it, and bury it,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr. told the board shortly before it unanimously approved the department overhaul at its Sept. 5 meeting.

Under the plan, the department will get both a new name--the Center for Educational Leadership--and a drastically different mission. Gone, say supporters, will be the department’s old focus on monitoring district compliance with state regulations.

Instead, the new agency will devote one-quarter of its staff to policy analysis, one-quarter to disseminating research through regional field representatives stationed on college and university campuses, and one-half to providing consultation, staff development, and other services as needed by local districts.

Sixty of 325 jobs within the agency will be eliminated, Mr. Spagnolo noted, as the department’s current eight layers of bureaucracy are reduced to four and its 22 professional-job classifications are reduced to seven.

Mr. Spagnolo said the department also will work to eliminate every state mandate and regulation not directly related to student learning or the protection of basic student rights.

To ensure that every district uses its new autonomy wisely, the state plans to develop improved assessments for measuring educational outcomes and holding districts accountable.

“We don’t view this as the end of the process by any means, but more of a beginning,” Mr. Spagnolo said. “The main purpose of this was not necessarily to save money, but to provide a vehicle for creating thef change we think is necessary.”

Draws Praise From Educators

Some observers described Virginia as an unlikely site for such a drastic overhaul of its education department, given the Old Dominion’s past reputation as a traditionalist in education policy.

“To tell you the truth, I really didn’t concentrate much on what was here before,” Mr. Spagnolo said. He added that he had told Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of his plans to dramatically change the department while he was being interviewed for the state superintendency, which he assumed in July after 17 years in charge of the Lynchburg, Va., public schools.

Mr. Spagnolo said his reorganization plan was based largely on hundreds of interviews with department employees and local educators, who repeatedly told him the state agency was overly bureaucratic, issued too many regulations, and had morale problems stemming from its poor image.

The changes in the department were warmly received by several of the state’s local district superintendents and leaders of education groups, including Madeline I. Wade, president of the Virginia Education Association, and Thomas J. McLernon, director of administrative services for the Virginia School Boards Association.

“I thought I heard an approaching thunderstorm, but what I heard instead was the thunderous applause of 136 division superintendents responding to this proposal,” Thomas L. Gorsuch, a member of the state board, said when the plan was approved.

Robert R. Spillane, superintendent of the Fairfax County schools, noted that the reorganization “gives the education department more of a focus on the systems that need help.” The restructured agency will be able to provide services to poorer districts in the southern part of the state, he suggested, while also granting autonomy to his and other suburban districts outside Washington that can fare well on their own.

Other States Changing

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, described the Virginia plan as a “bold step.” He added, however, that elements of the plan are being considered in several other states as well.

For example, Connecticut and California already have implemented a similar emphasis on research, Illinois has made a related shift toward measuring outcomes, and Delaware is developing a new educational branch focusing on accountability, Mr. Wilhoit said. Significant changes within education departments also are being considered in Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New Mexico.

Mr. Spagnolo said he plans to come forward with a precise blueprint for change in the department within 30 to 90 days, and will need approval from the legislature to change the department’s name.

The superintendent said the reorganization plan, which should take about four months to implement, includes several provisions narrowing the department’s oversight responsibilities.

Although the department will assume responsibility for early-childhood-education programs not currently under its auspices, he noted, it will divest such programs as adult literacy and adult education to other agencies.

Mr. Spagnolo said he plans to submit a follow-up plan calling for authority to take over school districts that are failing to meet the state’s educational goals.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1990 edition of Education Week as Va. Overhauls Department To Shift Focus From Regulation toResearch and Service