States Increasingly Flexing Their Policy Muscle

By Robert C. Johnston & Jessica L. Sandham — April 14, 1999 13 min read
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First in an occasional series.

One of the many lessons Russell C. Schools has learned since joining the Southampton County, Va., school board nearly 30 years ago is the truth of an old twist on the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.”

During Mr. Schools’ tenure, the Virginia state government’s share of his 2,850-student district’s budget has held steady at around 70 percent. But over the years, Mr. Schools has watched state lawmakers demand more for their money by passing new rules on class size, special education, and learning standards.

“We’re constantly having to add more people, more money, more time to meet the mandates,” he said. “Now we react more to what is passed down telling us what we have to do, instead of working with [the state] toward what we think is best.”

Mr. Schools’ experience is not out of the ordinary: These days, state officials are exerting unprecedented influence over public school classrooms.

In recent years, states have taken a more active role in everything from curriculum to funding, from textbooks to discipline. In some cases, such policy initiatives have been coupled with moves to decentralize oversight of schools. Not only has this rapid confluence of sometimes-contradictory actions been hard to keep up with, it has also forced new questions about the meaning of “local control.”

Today, governors and state legislators seem galvanized by stories of illiterate high school graduates and convinced that improved schools are the key to their states’ economic well-being. And, while they still may see local control as an ideal, they are rewriting the rules of education policymaking by actively pushing for results before relaxing their influence over schools.

A quick survey reveals:

  • The state share of K-12 spending, on average, increased from 38.3 percent in 1971-72 to 47.5 percent in 1995-96, making state aid the single largest component of local school budgets, according to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics. That same year--the latest for which statistics are available--the local share was 45.9 percent, and the federal share was 6.6 percent.
  • Forty-eight states now have statewide academic standards; 39 mandate tests that are aligned with their standards. And 19 states require high school exit exams, while eight others plan to do so.
  • Since 1989, 23 states have passed legislation that lets them take over academically failing school districts--a step 11 states have taken.
  • In a novel effort, Colorado is planning to negotiate contracts with school districts that would set performance goals in exchange for relief from state rules.
  • Some lawmakers and school advocates in California hope to draft a master plan that would specify state, district, and local duties for running schools.

“I don’t think the public realizes the sea change that’s occurred in who’s responsible for schools,” said Neil D. Theobald, an associate professor of education at Indiana University Bloomington. “The basic assumptions have changed.”

“While we talk about local control, what we have is anything but local control. That is probably the biggest issue in school finance,” Mr. Theobald added.

Constitutional Mandates

Gov. Gray Davis of California put things bluntly when he recently told a reporter that local control of schools had been an “abject failure.”

“When you have an earthquake or natural disaster, people expect the state to intervene,” declared the first-term Democrat, who championed a four-piece school reform package that passed his state’s legislature last month. “Well, we have a disaster in our schools.”

Legally, most legislatures have a right to be deeply involved in their states’ public schools.

The constitutions of every state but Iowa place the responsibility for establishing and maintaining a free system of public schools squarely in the hands of state government. But while the United States has a strong, grassroots tradition of local control of schools, only 11 state constitutions specifically call for and spell out the role of local school boards, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

William J. Moloney

“There is a considerable element of vagueness and tradition when you talk about this,” Colorado Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney said. “That’s why it’s so hard to get a discussion going.”

Even with their constitutional mandates, the role of the states is always evolving. Early in this century, their biggest contribution was granting local school-tax authority. Through the first two decades of the century, local schools footed about 83 percent of the education bill.

By 1940, the state share grew to 30 percent as states began guaranteeing minimum per-student spending levels, or foundation funding, to make up for funding inequities.

When the federal government sharply increased spending on K-12 schools in the 1960s as part of the federal “war on poverty,” state education departments grew in size and prominence, chiefly to make sure schools were following federal rules.

The number of state education agency employees actually doubled between 1965 and 1970, to 22,000, according to a January 1999 report on school governance published by the Education Commission of the States. More recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Education reported in 1997 that, by 1992-93, the total stood at about 28,600. That year was the most recent for which numbers were available.

“In 1960, no state had more than one book [of state education statutes], and now they are volumes long because states are regulating everything,” said Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.

One of the dominant state roles in the 1970s was imposition of minimum-competency tests for students. In 1983, however, state officials were alarmed and emboldened by A Nation at Risk, the landmark study commissioned by the Reagan administration that tarred American schools as mediocre. That report, combined with court rulings that overturned the systems of school finance in 18 states, set in motion the march to today’s heightened state voice in schools.

Mandating Curriculum?

As their share of spending has gone up, state leaders have demanded more involvement in the academic side of education.

“When we control the money, it’s hard to get out of the details,” conceded state Sen. Deirdre “DeDe” Alpert, the chairwoman of the Senate education committee in California.

Accountability programs that combine state-adopted academic standards, mandated tests, and related systems of rewards and penalties have been the states’ most powerful lever for change. Today, only Iowa and Nebraska are without state standards. While states like Colorado, Michigan, and Virginia stress that their standards are voluntary, state tests aligned with those goals make the standards hard to ignore.

For years, the academic standards most states had in place were really just a “conversation of experts,” said John F. Jennings, the executive director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. “Teachers put them on a shelf, and then states started to embed the standards in tests, and the teachers said, ‘Whoa, what’s this?’ ”

For instance, after 97 percent of Virginia’s public schools failed the first round of the state’s highly publicized Standards of Learning tests last spring, the pressure to link local curricula to the tests increased.

The program is “driving the textbooks we buy, it’s driving our summer school offerings,” said Jerry Canada, a school board member in Virginia’s 14,000-student Roanoke County schools. “It’s got everybody hustling. When people start talking about these tests, their heart rate rises.”

“States are going to have more say over curriculum. That’s the bottom line,” Mr. Jennings added. “Are districts ready to cede this? No. But local districts have no choice when it comes in the guise of standards.”

To hammer home their demands for improved student performance, 22 states also have given themselves the power to take over failing districts. And the newest trend is to allow state takeovers of individual schools, something permitted in 10 states.

Another variation on the takeover approach is for states to hand control of school districts to local mayors. Most recently, Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, successfully pushed a bill that gave Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer, a Democrat, the power to appoint a new school board and a chief administrative officer to oversee his city’s troubled schools.

By and large, though, states have not rushed to take over school systems; state officials typically opt to give technical aid first.

“States will intervene in a district, but what they will do before taking it over is provide a lot of assistance,” said Todd M. Ziebarth, a policy analyst with the ECS. “That is probably based on experience where [takeovers have] been contentious and the results have been mixed.”

Despite the consensus that state-driven reform has encroached on local control, some say that the rising state interest was necessary. Others go so far as to proclaim that state mandates have moved their schools in directions they might not have taken.

That’s the opinion of Craig Shurick, the principal of Vaughn Elementary School in a poor, rural community near Tacoma, Wash. His school improved its scores by about 50 percentage points during the first two years of the state’s standardized tests.

“The simple fact is, and it may sound tough, but the job was not getting done. The states had to grab a beachhead and say, ‘You will do this,’ ” he said of the state’s standards and tests. And he is confident that Washington state will relax control as schools improve.

“This [state requirement] hit us like a ton of bricks. But you either have to lead, follow, or get out of the way,” Mr. Shurick continued. “The survivors have understood that, and the kids are the beneficiaries.”

Balancing Bureaucracy

Ironically, state leaders sell their reform proposals to the public with accompanying promises of decentralization through fewer regulations and more freedom to do what it takes to meet the new standards.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Republican Gov. Tom Ridge is proposing an Academic Recovery Act, which would give eight low-performing school systems freedom from state rules in the area of hiring and privatization of services, in the hope it would help the districts improve. Under the plan, however, students in these districts would also get vouchers to pay for tuition at the private or public school of their choice. And the districts that fail to improve would be placed under the direction of a state-appointed control board.

Texas took perhaps the biggest leap in 1995, when its legislature rewrote the state education code to relieve the regulatory burden on districts.

There’s no doubt that the state moved to give school districts more flexibility to pick textbooks and select instructional material. On the other hand, Texas implemented a powerful accountability system through which the state rates every public school and district based on student test scores, attendance, and dropout rates.

“Some districts are better than others with the flexibility,” said Sam J. Zigrossi, the director of the Texas Statewide Systemic Initiative for Math and Sciences for the Dana Center, an education-policy-analysis group at the University of Texas at Austin. “You see some districts where the leadership is willing to take risks and get away from the traditional way of doing things.”

Three years ago, South Dakota lawmakers purged about 500 rules and some 100 statutes, and the impact was immediate.

Gene Enck, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, said the change was hard at first because districts could no longer simply blame the state for bad policies. At the same time, they have had to tailor policies that fit locally.

“Obviously, the same policy for a small rural district doesn’t work in Sioux Falls,” Mr. Enck said."But I can’t overemphasize how hard it was at first.”

Some South Dakota schools and districts have run with the freedom. For example, a district schools chief no longer has to hold a superintendent’s credential. Instead, districts can hire noncredentialed superintendents who hold the title of chief executive officer.

That was “a scary issue at first,” Christie J. Johnson, the executive director of School Administrators of South Dakota, said of the rule change. “But school boards didn’t go crazy and hire people off of the streets.”

In general, she added: “People have the schools they want. Some districts that are progressive took and ran with the lessening of requirements. There are others that have remained the same for 50 years.”

Local Inertia

Mr. Moloney, the Colorado commissioner, acknowledges that his state has pushed its agenda of standards and exams on school districts and eroded local control over classrooms. Colorado, like Virginia and Texas, links school accreditation to state tests.

Yet Mr. Moloney believes that charges of state intrusion are overblown.

“If there is money coming, no one mentions local control,” he said. “If there is accountability, everyone mentions it. That’s something I’ve seen. And it’s consistent.”

He contends that schools and districts fail to take advantage of the freedoms they already have.

“Schools do a lot of the same stuff, and they look alike,” Mr. Moloney said. “When you ask why, the answer is not because of state or federal regulations, but because ‘that’s how we’ve always done it.’ ”

Most states allow or even require some form of local site-based management in which teachers, parents, and administrators join in school decisions. And states generally offer waivers from some school rules.

But such tools tend to be underused, according to researchers.

“We continually found that school-based management was not making much of a difference,” said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a professor of education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “It’s not clear that sufficient power is being sent down to the school site.”

Ultimately, for schools to have the best chance of meeting state learning goals, individual schools must be given--and take advantage of--new budgetary and administrative freedoms, some experts say.

“How you give local flexibility will be extremely important,” said Jim Watts, the vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. “District superintendents and boards need to reassess roles and be more aware of how each building is doing and what should be done to improve results.”

That, he warns, will not be easy. “School districts are slow to change control methods,” Mr. Watts said. “They are organized around the convenience of adults and not the needs of children.”

The big-picture issue of who is running schools, and how they are doing it, is getting increased attention locally and nationally.

California’s Sen. Alpert is seeking to convene a special committee later this year to study the issue of school governance in the Golden State. The goal will be to craft an education master plan that addresses the governance roles and direction of the state’s 5.8 million-student public school system.

Such a plan could come as a relief to many California districts, which have been bombarded by a wave of state and voter-initiated school measures in recent years.

“It’s hard to be accountable when you know where you want to go and how you want to spend your money, but the state tells you how to do this,” said Laura Walker Jeffries, the senior legislative advocate for the California Association of School Boards. "[The state is] involved in every aspect.”

--Robert C. Johnston

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A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as States Increasingly Flexing Their Policy Muscle


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