Of the organizations responsible for shaping K-12 schooling, state education agencies (SEAs) play one of the most critical roles. They are also one of the least understood.
Once tiny departments primarily concerned with channeling federal dollars to local school districts, the past couple of decades have seen unprecedented demands placed on SEAs and their leaders surrounding such issues as turning around low-performing schools, developing accountability systems, and structuring teacher evaluation and pay. Similarly, SEA chiefs are now some of the most important figures in the school reform effort; Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist, for example, was one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009.
And yet, despite the increasing public attention paid to SEAs and state education chiefs, remarkably little is known about them, and whether they are actually capable of playing these new roles. The last major effort to ascertain reliable figures on SEA staffing levels and budgets was way back in 1994. Academic attention has been sparse: one literature review examining research over the past 50 years on the state role in education only identified nine sources that looked at SEAs. Considering how drastically the expectations, demands, and ambitions of SEAs have changed over the past two decades, this is a severe deficit.
This week, two AEI reports attempt to address this shortage. The first is “State Education Agencies as Agents of Change: What It Will Take for the States to Step Up On Education Reform,” a joint effort by Rick Hess and myself along with Cindy Brown and Isabel Owen at the Center for American Progress. After surveying the existing literature on SEAs, we go straight to the top—interviews with 13 current and former SEA chiefs about the nature of their role, challenges they face, and what they need to make SEAs a focal point of school reform.
We offer a number of fascinating findings in the paper. There’s a stunning lack of transparency when it comes to SEAs reporting basic staffing and budgeting data, making it difficult to analyze agency performance. Federal dollars, usually the dominant funding source for SEAs, are also typically tied to specific programs and employees, giving the state chief little control over how these funds are spent and thus little room to maneuver. Perhaps most important, though, is that these agencies are often overly focused on compliance, not reform. “The traditional role of the SEA,” we observe, “is to administer state and federal funds, and customarily SEA employees have worked to ensure the SEA complies with the law rather than focusing on how to best help districts and schools increase student achievement.”
This conclusion echoes one in a second report, “Overlooked Conditions: How the Current Federal Compliance Framework Works against Federal Education Policy Goals” by Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric. Junge and Krvaric argue that the multilayered and extraordinarily complex compliance framework for many federal education programs often leads to huge burdens for states and districts. For example, Title I, the federal program directing funds to low-income school districts, has an estimated 588 distinct requirements. This means states and districts tend to emphasize adhering to laws over creatively thinking about how to reform troubled schools. As Junge and Krvaric conclude, “Federal oversight activities encourage spending that is ‘safe’ from a compliance perspective, rather than ‘effective’ from a student perspective.”
This culture in state education departments is one of the leading reasons creative and innovative state leaders have such a hard time pushing through substantive reform at the state level, and presents one of the biggest challenges going forward. Our hope is that these reports will call attention to the limits of how SEAs are currently run while offering helpful insights into how successful state education chiefs have managed to turn SEAs into more reform-minded organizations.
Daniel Lautzenheiser is a research assistant in education policy studies.