Some state education agencies may end up being limited in their capacity to take full advantage of opportunities for flexibility provided in the Every Student Succeeds Act because of drastic budget cuts in recent years, educators and experts say.
While K-12 spending will increase in most states for the next fiscal year, many legislatures are reluctant to give education departments more money, instead directing them to funnel the money to school districts.
In petroleum-producing states like Alaska and Louisiana, for example, where revenue has plummeted dramatically because of the drop in oil prices, lawmakers this year are considering measures that would cut more than half of their education department budgets.
That prospect is taking place at a time when the recently passed ESSA is handing greater power to state officials to determine how to hold teachers and schools accountable, among other things.
Education leaders worry that recent budget cuts that hollowed out department staffs and cuts to long-standing programs will limit their outreach efforts, the sort of data they can collect to incorporate into their accountability systems, and their ability to successfully intervene in their worst-performing schools.
The budget cuts could also lead some departments to outsource a portion of their accountability work or hand much of the power over to local districts.
“These cuts are going to impede our ability to do, in a thoughtful and informed way, our creative work to develop an accountability plan that works for us,” said Alaska Interim Commissioner Susan McCauley, who has already lost a third of her department’s budget after last year’s cuts and will likely lose more staff this year.
Legislators in a number of states say they’d rather cut a bureaucrat in the capital before they cut a teacher in the classroom.
“You try to cut as far away from the kids first,” said Alaska state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a former educator who chairs the state’s finance committee.
The pressure on some state education agencies comes against a backdrop of overall recovery to K-12 aid nationally. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, 41 states increased their K-12 funding in the 2016 fiscal year.
The majority of school districts across the country this year also will see their budgets increase, said Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. Property-and sales-tax revenues have slowly climbed back to prerecession levels, and state legislatures have poured billions more dollars into their education budgets to boost teacher pay and shrink class sizes.
“If you’re not in an oil state, it’s a pretty good year,” Griffith said. “But we’re not hearing that there’s a lot of money going into new things. There’s a real feeling out there that there are holes that need to be filled from the last recession.”
And funding continues to be a heated issue in a number of states.
Pennsylvania’s Republican-dominated legislature was still at a standoff last week with Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, over how to distribute billions of education dollars and pay down a ballooning pension fund.
Kansas and Washington state are under strict court orders to provide their school districts millions more dollars in funding, but they continue to wrangle over solutions that would satisfy those orders.
But in the ever-roiling debate over school funding, state education departments often are seen as an afterthought, which could have consequences as ESSA takes hold, said Patrick Murphy, a senior fellow and the director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, who has studied state education departments.
Departments are traditionally charged with administering standardized tests, establishing and certifying curriculum, and making sure federal funds are being distributed appropriately. Their responsibilities will greatly expand under ESSA.
“They’re part of the implementation arm,” Murphy said. “If you don’t have any resources, you can’t play that role. You will end up doing the minimum and just check the boxes.”
In Louisiana, with legislators staring at a $943 million midyear budget deficit, a bill passed the House early this month to cut 85 percent of the education department’s budget, a move that would effectively have shuttered the department. Senators voted down the measure.
“We wouldn’t want to destroy the tool that we use to design our policy,” said Louisiana state Sen. Eric LaFleur, a Democrat who chairs the Senate’s finance committee.
A spokesman for the state’s education department said it received $7 million in midyear cuts, or 5 percent of its budget, which included funds for teacher training and research, as well as most of the department’s travel budget. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, proposed in a speech March 14 to limit use of the state’s voucher program, which the department oversees.
Louisiana’s education commissioner soon will have to present to the legislature a plan for how to cut up to 65 percent of the department’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year, though a series of tax increases could lessen that amount, said Jodi Mauroner, the education section director in the state’s legislative fiscal office.
In Kansas, even though the legislature, at the urging of the state Supreme Court, has pumped millions more dollars into the education coffers over the years, the education department’s staffing has hovered at around 200 people.
“Just because you’re distributing more money, doesn’t mean your department needs more money,” said Dale Dennis, the Kansas department’s deputy superintendent.
In Oklahoma, the state department of education is combing through past legislation to see what education initiatives are mandated and which can be curtailed, said Matt Holder, the department’s deputy superintendent of finance.
Still, there can be a cost.
“We’ve taken significant cuts that are limiting us on what we can and can’t do,” Holder said. The department faces a 10 percent cut this year. “We’re trying to deal with the here and now.”
In Alaska, where the state has a $4 billion deficit, the legislature is proposing to cut up to $10 million from the department’s budget. Lawmakers are reluctant to raise taxes.
The legislature has eliminated the state’s $2 million pre-K program, which served students in six of the largest districts. It also cut a teacher-mentoring program and several teacher-training programs. Further cuts are anticipated.
“This is akin to an airline pilot coming on the intercom and saying, ‘At this rate of speed, and with the burning of the fuel, we’re not going to make it to the airport unless we toss out the luggage,’ ” Dunleavy said. “Nobody is saying the luggage is not good stuff. Will student outcomes suffer? I’d be surprised if it didn’t suffer. I’d be overjoyed if it didn’t.”
Not all state education departments have suffered.
In Utah, where lawmakers approved a budget that would add $95 million to their K-12 budget, the education department managed to snag money to hire auditors and update some of its computer systems.
But most of the money was sent to districts that have dealt with overcrowding in recent years.
“We are not back to the same level we were prerecession by any means,” said Scott Jones, the state’s deputy superintendent for operations. “We don’t see this kind of thing every year in Utah.”
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A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2016 edition of Education Week as State Agency Capacity Sees Selective Squeeze