Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

States Lack Capacity for Reform

By Michael D. Usdan & Arthur D. Sheekey — May 14, 2012 6 min read

The country is in the throes of ideological polarization about the role and influence of the federal government in every policy realm. This debate, which is a point of contention in the 2012 presidential race, concerns every major public-policy realm, be it business and finance regulation, health care, energy, social services, or education.

One long-neglected issue that is finally receiving the attention it merits relates to the capacity of the states to assume responsibility for such complex economic and political matters if one assumes, as we do, that the influence of the federal government may well begin to wane at least for the immediate future.

This issue is particularly salient in education, where state education agencies will be expected to pick up the leadership mantle on issues pertaining to the common-core standards, assessments, and teacher evaluation, to name a few examples. In essence, most state education departments remain almost wholly owned federal subsidiaries, with well over half their budgets emanating from federal funds. Indeed, the states historically have always underfunded their education agencies. The capacity of most state education agencies has been further diluted because of recent severe budget and staffing cuts, which have further compromised their ability to provide the requisite leadership in research, planning, and evaluation.

As the tortuous process of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act unfolds in the months (or years) ahead, the issue of state capacity is finally beginning to attract the attention it merits. Recent reports from the Center on Education Policy, the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, and the Center for American Progress have focused on the limited capacity of SEAs. The authors of these reports agree that because few states are strengthening the capacity of their SEAs, the federal government should use its funding authority to prompt them to do so. These studies reveal a complementary pattern of findings that both highlight and confirm the fact that most state education agencies are ill-equipped to lead the national effort to reform and revitalize public education.

It is strange that such studies are so often ignored by policymakers, because most federal officials acknowledge that states have the legal authority and responsibility for education, and that SEAs potentially are the structural linchpins to improve the nation’s schools. While congressional officials may not take notice of independent think-tank reports, Congress’ own investigative arm, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, has released a number of reports that find SEAs seriously lacking in the resources needed to lead and sustain educational reform.

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Over the past four decades, state officials have strived to acquire their share of federal education dollars. And they are now being called on to operate more efficiently and effectively in a new era of fiscal constraints described as the “new normal,” which translates into doing more with less. SEAs have been doing more with less for decades, but of late, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is asking state and school district officials to do even more with even less. The secretary is encouraging state and local education leaders to “explore productive alternatives to old ways of doing things,” and urging them to bring about “transformational productivity reforms that can also boost student outcomes.”

Statutory mandates, blueprints, and incentive grants originating from the federal government over the past several decades have become increasingly explicit about what states must do to receive allocations or to participate in discretionary-grant competitions. The Race to the Top, for example, requires that states pledge to reshape teacher compensation, adopt standards, or close the lowest-performing schools to compete.

Clearly, the several billion dollars authorized by the ESEA (whose current edition is the No Child Left Behind Act) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 have served federal intent by incentivizing, catalyzing, and stimulating reform. In most states, significant reforms have been launched. But given the fact that both federal and state revenues for education are expected to decline for the foreseeable future, the school reformers who accept the new normal should also be aware of the old normal—that is, periods when state political leaders have historically ignored their funding obligations and the responsibility to maintain the organizational effectiveness of their education agencies. The states’ transformational reform that Secretary Duncan hopes for is more likely to occur when their education agencies are given incentives and resources to transform themselves into 21st-century organizations.

We can be fairly certain that few, if any, states will soon come up with additional funds for strengthening state-supported technical services to local school districts or adjusting staff positions to hire and retain staff members with technical skills or unique experience to spur reforms. Nearly all SEAs are desperately in need of experienced technical staff to systematically and strategically plan and develop 1) new programs for struggling schools and 2) additional resources to evaluate the school intervention initiatives that are already under way. With the certainty that the resources available to state departments of education will diminish, should federal officials merely sit back and expect their state colleagues to do even more with even less?

As the tortuous process of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act unfolds in the months (or years) ahead, the issue of state capacity is finally beginning to attract the attention it merits."

Most states are not ready to make the necessary investments to revitalize their educational bureaucracies, but a few Race to the Top-winning states (including Tennessee and Delaware) appear ready to change the way their SEAs operate. In any event, the impetus in the short run for strengthening and restructuring SEAs across the nation will have to come from the federal government.

Few directly involved in shaping intergovernmental education policymaking have to be convinced that SEAs will not be in a strong position to implement the reauthorized ESEA whenever it occurs. Nor at this point does anyone expect new provisions in a reauthorized ESEA to include additional resources or incentives that might contribute to strengthening and transforming the capacity of state education agencies. As a consequence of fewer federal and state funds to bolster the organizational capacities of SEAs, a new and predictable set of federal mandates and reporting obligations will again be assigned to state officials who now have decades of experience of doing more with less.

This is already beginning to happen. In the absence of a congressional reauthorization, Secretary Duncan is offering states waivers under No Child Left Behind that free them from many of the core tenets of the 2002 law, such as a goal of 100 percent student proficiency by 2014, and uniform sanctions for schools that miss academic targets. In exchange, states are designing their own accountability systems and school interventions, as the federal Education Department cedes more control back to SEAs.

Congress is not likely to authorize an ESEA bill that will end federal mandates, and legislation sponsored by Sens. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, seeks to provide more authority to the states. There is a growing sense that this shift in authority is a move in the right direction.

Whatever bill ultimately gets through Congress, it should include incentives to strengthen the capacity of SEAs. Relatively small set-asides and new flexibility provisions might be offered to a growing number of states that appear willing to reform and revitalize their SEAs by attracting new staff members and implementing organizational change.

Allowing a state to request and justify an additional allowance, say 1 percent or 2 percent of its ESEA administrative funding, for engaging support from technical experts, researchers, and analysts might contribute to a state’s capacity to address Secretary Duncan’s challenge “to explore productive alternatives to old ways of doing things.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week as Considering State Capacity in a Reauthorized ESEA

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