Special Report
School & District Management

State, Local Officials Square Off on Who Calls Shots on K-12

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 03, 2014 7 min read

Clashes between state governments and Washington over education policy fit a well-worn political narrative: far-away bureaucrats meddling in day-to-day operations—and imposing costly mandates without the funding to pay for them.

But that same tension is often evident in the complex and interdependent relationship between those at the state and local levels. From school accountability to control over charters, some local K-12 leaders say state officials who complain about the White House or Congress have been just as guilty of imposing requirements on schools, in conjunction with outside advocacy groups but without proper debate or sober consideration.

A variety of factors have come together to increase the pressure that many local K-12 officials feel from state leaders. They include relatively new players, such as the Foundation for Excellence in Education, led by former GOP Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; the federal government’s recent willingness to grant states some policy leeway from a few Washington mandates; and a new appetite among state-level policymakers for K-12 policy makeovers and political brawls.

“The oddity is that for so long we had education buffered off in its own governance institutions,” said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied education governance. “It’s not surprising to me that policy is increasingly migrating to these institutions and elected officials who have a responsibility to respond to groups other than parent and teacher groups.”

Feds and Frustration

Some of the trajectory of state and local battles can be traced back to the early 1980s, when the national mood concerning education shifted as reports of a K-12 crisis went mainstream. Funding shifts that began in the 1970s have also seen states pick up an increasing share of K-12 aid, giving state lawmakers a more direct incentive to be more active in public-school policy.

Governors, in particular, have grown more aggressive in linking education to economic power, and therefore bolder in exerting influence on K-12 policy. Last August, just to use one example, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, created a new state agency, the Center for Education & Career Innovation, to align K-12, higher education, and workforce education programs.

Until recently, the “common enemy” of many district and state leaders was Washington, particularly during the era of the No Child Left Behind Act, said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

But now, through NCLB Act waivers and competitive-grant programs such as Race to the Top, federal officials have been using incentives to prod states into taking the lead in a broad swath of areas. They include tightened accountability for schools and teachers, the expansion of charter schools and other new delivery methods for education, and the adoption of higher academic standards.

In addition, both conservative and liberal advocates have stepped up the pressure on state lawmakers to be proactive on issues ranging from equity and adequacy to accountability and choice, Mr. Henig said. Those pressures have pushed education into the realm of “general governance” in states, he argued, meaning that it is subject to the same political judgments as other state policy areas.

Ms. Lake makes a similar point: “Folks are saying they’re tired of waiting for school districts to do these kinds of things.”

A range of education advocates continue to assert the importance of local control. But it’s unclear whether this historically potent idea can be effectively wielded by those seeking to tamp down state lawmakers’ ambitions.

In many circumstances, states ultimately consider local school boards as extensions of state education agencies, Columbia University School of Law professor Richard Briffault wrote in a 2004 paper. One prominent exception being school finance lawsuits, where states often emphasize the importance of local property taxes.

Pending school finance lawsuits pitting districts against states in the wake of the Great Recession, such as in Kansas and Texas, haven’t helped the mood.

Wielding Influence

Local school policy can be shaped by a wide variety of actors and groups, ranging from community activists to federal officials.

SOURCE: Education Week Research Center, 2014

And there has been a fundamental shift in the political environment in which influence can come from a more diverse field of players, said Lorraine McDonnell, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Traditional local interest groups haven’t yet adapted to the opened-up playing field with new points of access,” she said.

Stonewalled in Oklahoma

In 2011, when David Pennington, the superintendent of the 5,200-student Ponca City schools in Oklahoma and the president-elect of the American Association of School Administrators, tried to dissuade state lawmakers from adopting a policy to require schools to retain some 3rd graders unable to demonstrate reading proficiency, he said he was completely stonewalled. Legislators’ heads had been turned, he argued, because of intense lobbying by the Jeb Bush-backed Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The foundation, based in Tallahassee, Fla., champions such a 3rd-grade retention policy, A-F school accountability, and school choice. It has developed close ties with Oklahoma Superintendent Janet Barresi, who was elected in 2010, and its work in a number of states and its connections to officials in New Mexico, Maine, and elsewhere has been well documented.

The “outright hostility” that Mr. Pennington said exists between state and local leaders has spread recently to another policy Oklahoma adopted in 2011: school accountability using A-F grades. In October, following fluctuations in the A-F grades provided to schools for review and correction, one local superintendent called for his colleagues to vote “no confidence” in Ms. Barresi.

“It’s still national policy that we’re dealing with on a local level, but it’s not national policy necessarily from Congress,” Mr. Pennington said. “It’s national policy from the foundations, working through the legislature and various agencies of state government.”

Virginia is another state where local advocates are butting heads with officials whose policies have the backing of national K-12 advocacy groups. Local school boards have filed a lawsuit to overturn the new Opportunity Educational Institution, a state-run district approved last year with the backing of lame-duck Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to take over low-performing schools. And charter school advocates continue to push to change Virginia law because it allows only local school boards to authorize charters, among other reasons.

Innovation and Opportunity

But improving school performance, and opening lawmakers’ eyes to the myriad ways K-12 education can be improved, is behind the policies the Foundation for Excellence in Education has backed in states such as Oklahoma and Virginia, said Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the group.

The group consistently looks for “innovative local leaders” who are seeking support for new initiatives in their districts, Ms. Levesque said. In reality, she said, many of the foundation’s priorities are about getting states to give districts flexibility from policies that were conceived before the Internet, for example.

“You have policies in place that don’t contemplate a principal in South Florida wanting to use a Georgia teacher to teach a class, because that would have been impossible before,” she said.

But what if elected board members working most closely with communities feel their representative roles are being subverted?

Ben Schwarm, a deputy executive director at the Illinois Association of School Boards, cites the state’s ability to overrule a district’s decision about authorizing a charter school. He also points to Illinois legislation introduced last year and still pending as of December that would allow the state board to remove a local board’s elected members because of performance and accreditation issues.

“Do we really want locally elected school boards to make these decisions for the community? A lot of these ideas sure make it seem like they’re not putting a lot of credence in that,” Mr. Schwarm said of state officials.

Political Deference

There is one area where states are very interested in vocally defending local power over education: the Common Core State Standards.

In October, Louisiana state school board members clarified that local school boards had control over curriculum under the common core and could not have it or course materials forced on them. (The idea was implicit in state policy but beforehand had not been explicit.) Those actions, and similar ones in Florida and Michigan, are being taken because the common core has become “very politicized,” said Efrain Mercado, the project director for the common core at the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“The idea of instructional methods—those decisions should always be made locally,” he said.

That deference, while it has political motivations, could illustrate why districts will continue to hold lots of leverage when it comes to classroom work and the teachers responsible for it.

Mr. Henig maintains that as long as day-to-day decisions reside with local bureaucracies, those tasked with changing education policy will have to take traditional K-12 governance structures at the local level into account.

“The districts are still surprisingly important in terms of managing it at the street level,” he said. “That’s where the manpower is.”


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