School & District Management

Steep Learning Curve on K-12 as State Leaders Take New Seats

By Daarel Burnette II — February 14, 2017 6 min read
Frank Edelblut speaks at a hearing on his nomination to lead New Hampshire’s education department, State chiefs’ spots have seen high turnover rates nationally.

At a pivotal time for state education policy, half the nation’s state legislatures have at least one new education committee chairperson this year, and a quarter of state schools chiefs are less than a year into the job, according to an Education Week analysis.

This year’s large freshman class of key education policymakers has advocates and district leaders on edge as state leaders scramble to finalize the accountability plans due by next fall under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The plans cut across the policy arena, and state officials have plenty of flexibility to chart their own courses, while still making sure they live up to the federal education law’s requirements. Those new to the job have a steep learning curve and—as suggested by the controversy over the qualifications of newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos—little margin for error.

“For new chiefs coming in, they’re potentially walking into a firestorm,” said Stephen Bowen, the Council of Chief State School Officers’ strategic-initiative director for innovation.

In prior years, education leaders in many states had some running room in getting to understand a state’s school system, the capacity of education departments to roll out policy, and the political will for change.

But, on the first day of the job last month, core state legislative leaders and school superintendents were grappling with plans to turn around their states’ worst-performing schools, allocate millions of federal dollars to districts, construct new English-language-learner tests, and retool teacher-evaluation systems.

Experience Matters

Education advocates and district officials are still determining where state chiefs and legislative leaders stand on issues such as school choice, testing, and accountability.

“Seeing all this disruption at the top levels can be unnerving to the education community,” said Michelle Exstrom, the education program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Experience always matters because you need the legislators who tend to be more experienced and have a better sense of different education policy approaches that have been tried through the years.”

Fewer than half the lawmakers who head up their chambers’ education committees have K-12 education experience, such as teaching or serving on a local school board. Ten state superintendents have never taught in a classroom.

While that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unqualified to do the job—Exstrom said fresh voices, in fact, can bring about positive change—they will have to move quickly to craft state policies that may have unintended consequences at the local level this fall when ESSA plans are expected to go into effect.

Consultants describe state board meetings, listening sessions, and department staff meetings in recent weeks in which wide-eyed legislators and superintendents are inundated with a slate of acronyms, and technical—but important—details of education policy, process, and research.

Groups such as the NCSL and the CCSSO have dispatched staff members across the country in recent weeks to shore up leaders with hourslong Education Policy 101 sessions. With a dearth of knowledge at the top, others can end up making important decisions.

“We’re putting more policymaking into the hands of the executive branch, lobbyists, and even capital staff,” said Wendy Underhill, an NCSL researcher and program director who tracks term limits among state legislators.

Education Week examined the résumés and tenure of every state’s chief education official and of those who chair the committees tasked with handling the bulk of K-12 policy in every state legislature. (All 50 state legislatures are in session this year.)

Among the new education committee chairpersons, some have experience with K-12, while others are veteran lawmakers but have no specific background in education.

Experts point to a variety of reasons for the number of new state chiefs and new education committee chairs. For one thing, term limits passed in several states in the 1990s have dramatically shortened the tenure of state legislators, which can leave some committee chairs vacant. Across the country, about 1,200 of the 7,400 legislators this year are new to the job.

In addition, amid the political volatility and pressures of policy at the state level, schools chiefs are resigning, or getting fired, at a record pace—currently, they have an average tenure of 2½ years.

Continuity an Issue

The result can be a lack of continuity.

“New legislators and superintendents are not interested in inheriting someone else’s agenda and then sustaining it,” said David Conley, a researcher at the University of Oregon, in Portland, who studies education policy. “You can’t go back to constituents and say, ‘Look at what I did.’ ”

In New Mexico, Senate education committee Chairman William Soules, a Democrat appointed last month after four years as vice chairman, said his committee goes through about six bills a day in a matter of three hours. Some bills have misleading titles; others are full of acronyms that the former teacher and education professor said would baffle anybody that doesn’t have a general sense of education policy.

“I couldn’t imagine not having an extensive background in education,” Soules said. “I looked over in the corner one day, and one of the committee members’ eyes were huge because she can’t swallow any more coming out of the fire hydrant.”

In some states, having a new superintendent this year has thrown into question the details of ESSA plans first crafted by previous state leaders last year when the federal law was first passed.

Washington state Superintendent Chris Reykdal, along with Hans Zeiger, the Senate committee chair, both new to the job this year, will take “to lightning speed” the pace of crafting that state’s plan so that it’s mostly completed by the end of this legislative session in April.

On the first day of his job, Reykdal replaced his deputies and the department’s chief financial officer and dramatically reorganized the department. The state is expected to redesign its K-12 funding formula this year. “It’s a very unique time for us,” Reykdal said.

Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, Elsie Arntzen, elected last November as the state’s first Republican superintendent in 28 years, said she will retract the ESSA plan submitted to the federal government in December by her predecessor and make several changes, including to the state’s long-term goals, the amount of control local districts have, and the indicators on their accountability system.

“When we pull it back, I want more discussion in all of our communities,” Arntzen said.

Every morning, working to build a relationship with lawmakers, she serves them hot coffee and apple fritters at the state’s capitol building. She’s also had her share of fires to put out: In her first month on the job, a whistleblower accused the prior superintendent of misrepresenting the state’s ACT scores to the federal government, and her employees had to be evacuated from an education department building because of a gas leak.

“I have a great sense of humor about it all,” Arntzen said. “This time is a wonderful opportunity for myself and those deployed in the field to make sure we put Montana’s students first.”

Librarian Holly Peele and Assistant Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2017 edition of Education Week as State Leaders Hit the Books

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