Society and Culture, Education, Politics and Public Opinion, States

Reforming state education agencies

Image Credit: shutterstock

Image Credit: shutterstock

Preserving elementary and secondary education as a state and local responsibility has been a bedrock conservative principle since our nation’s founding. Educating one’s children fits quite neatly into the “domestic and personal interests” James Madison referred to in Federalist 46. As Madison reasoned, those closer to children and their families are more attuned to their needs than distant bureaucrats or politicians elected to national office. It is proper, therefore, to put as much of the responsibility of maintaining a strong education system in their hands.

Unfortunately, state leaders have not always lived up to Madison’s ideals. Initially, the founders deliberately limited the powers of governors in response to the unchecked and tyrannical power British colonial governors had prior to the American Revolution. Larry Sabato, in 1983 work Goodbye to Good-Time Charlie,” quotes a North Carolina delegate at the Constitutional Convention as saying a governor was given “just enough power to sign the receipt of his paycheck.” While governors were granted increased power around the turn of the 20th century by Progressive reformers hoping to combat the corruption of city-based political bosses, the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913 (granting the federal government the power to levy an income tax) and the distinctly national problems of two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl turned many citizens’ eyes to Washington.

This led to the election of what Sabato calls “Good Time Charlies,” governors who were inept, corrupt, often racist, and generally incompetent. As he points out, however, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and in response to the Nixonian New Federalism of the 1970s, state bureaucracies increased their capacity and competence, which in turn decreased the likelihood that citizens would elect a Good Time Charlie. This put power, as well as responsibility, back into state bureaucracies.

All of this leads me to Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire’s new report, “The State Education Agency: At the Helm Not the Oar.

If conservatives want to keep states in control and to reverse the ever-federalizing trend that started during the Great Society, they will have to prove to voters that they have the ability to manage a first-class education system at the state level.

Smarick and Squire are skeptical they have that capacity now. But, luckily, they offer a way forward.

Their central idea is twofold. First, State Education Agencies (SEAs, the bureaucracies that run state education systems) lack the capacity to do much of what we currently ask them to do. They are tasked with mountains of regulatory responsibilities, various operational requirements, and administrative tasks (for a full list see pg. 7 of the report). They lack the manpower, expertise, and leverage to do them effectively.

Second, this needs to change. Borrowing from Osborne and Gaebler’s “Reinventing Government,” the SEA of the future, in Smarick and Squires’ estimation, should be one that “steers,” not “rows.”

They break down the role of the new SEA into four C’s:

  • Control-the SEA should adopt statewide standards and assessments, create and maintain data systems, and monitor compliance with state and federal laws
  • Contract- the SEA would use performance contracts with outside organizations to provide services to schools and teachers like professional development and teacher evaluation
  • Cleave- SEAs would entirely separate themselves from charter school authorizing and promoting innovation in the state
  • Create- the SEA would work to attract or create new, civil society-based organizations within states to spur reform efforts like coordinating human capital, incubating new schools, and providing management guidance

In total, I find their arguments compelling and their solutions immensely appealing.  Focusing government agencies on what they can do well and then leveraging the civil society to accomplish the rest puts the right tasks in the right people’s hands and greatly increases the probability that the various component tasks will be done well.

State leaders across the country (and right here in DC) would be well served to take their arguments seriously, and even if leaders don’t want to go full-bore down the decentralization track, they would benefit from asking the hard questions about the set of tasks SEAs are positioned to do well and what tasks they are not.

But given all of that, I do have three issues that I think deserve some further thought.

The first is that most SEAs are not moribund out of their own volition. Much of the administrivia and regulatory burden that SEAs currently undertake happens because the federal government requires it of them. When Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White gave a recent policy address here at AEI, he explained to the incredulous crowd that the federal government requires 103 reports from him every year. Though only 10% of Louisiana’s funding comes from federal sources, 50% of the SEA’s staff work in the “Federal Programs” office.

So, while Smarick and Squire are clearly aiming at promoting state-level reform, a lot of folks here in DC would need to learn to pump the brakes in order for their scaled-down system to work.

It is also true that states have been passing and implementing a raft of teacher and school evaluation and accountability programs that have requirements for SEAs to play an active role. Provisions of that legislation would have to be sandpapered off or amended to allow for these new diverse providers to evaluate and develop teachers. This is not to say that is impossible. But, many individuals and organizations pushed hard through a great deal of resistance to get those laws passed, and they might be hesitant to turn those hard fought-for responsibilities over to contracted organizations and not governmental bureaucrats.

The second returns to an earlier theme. Remember, the Good Time Charlie governors of yesteryear emerged because they lacked power. The more of the budget they controlled and the more responsibility they had, the more voters thought to elect competent administrators. I worry (and to their credit, Smarick and Squire do as well) that there might not be enough folks out there interested in taking the now-reduced, but still incredibly important, job of state superintendent. A supe in this new system would have to be an atypically humble guy or gal. He or she would have to openly recognize his or her limitations and be comfortable turning over previous responsibilities to other people. If those folks don’t exist in sufficient numbers, I don’t want Good Time Charlies filling the void.

Third and finally, this is a deeply conservative vision for state education governance. It runs headfirst into an increasingly progressive and technocratic education reform movement that thinks that data (or even better “big data”), rigorous research, and “smart” leaders can turn around even the most intransigent systems. Smarick and Squire’s argument is orthogonal to that line of thinking. Shy of more education reformers reading Burke, I think they might struggle to get folks on board.

Now, none of this is to say that I’m not on board the S.S. Smarick and Squire. Far from it. I hope their paper sparks a serious discussion here in Washington and elsewhere. It is one I’d be happy to be a part of.

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One thought on “Reforming state education agencies

  1. The extensive scholarship of Dr. McShane makes any critique of his analyses a serious challenge. Still, this analysis of modifications to the systems within the institutionalization of elementary and secondary education seems to be based upon acceptance, as irreversible fait accompli, of a series of fundamental departures in our social relationships.

    He begins: “Preserving elementary and secondary education as **a state and local responsibility** has been a bedrock conservative principle since our nation’s founding.” [emphasis added]

    That “responsibility” in our society was, initially, and for a considerable period of time throughout the 19th century was familial. The **performance** of that responsibility varied by capacities and motivations. Where sufficient commonalities of interest in provisions for **performance** occurred, communal cooperation in, and communal acceptance of, the related burdens developed. Initially that cooperation was not institutionalized although patterns of effective performance evolved. Nonetheless, the underlying “responsibility” was parental and familial, not governmental in nature.

    This is not to deny that transfers of some portions (and in some cases the entirety) of that responsibility have occurred, and continue to occur. Scholars regularly comment upon the importance of the “involvement” of parents in the performance of that responsibility; decry the effects of total parenteral abdication of that responsibility. No form (governmental or otherwise) of institutionalization has been cited as fully capable of adequate performance of that responsibility without parental or proxy participation.

    Then, this analysis is concerned with the proper *governmental* assignment of modifications to that institutionalization and the systems within it, rather than recognition that the institutionalization and the systematization, however they have risen, and from whatever departures in relationships or transfers of responsibilities, must be replaced. A brief, simplified, example of historical development may support the reasons for this conclusion.

    In the early 1800s in the rural Midwest the families understood a common need to provide for those levels of education for their offspring. Earlier forms of inadequate performance were carried out within the family circles. They came together, as families, with commonly recognized responsibilities and objectives for their performance that led them voluntarily to contribute land, materials and labor to construct one room schoolhouses, to reach out and hire “schoolmarms” who were taken into the families, often ultimately marrying into the community, and ordained with specific respect required of the children. Since it was their responsibility, those families were directly engaged in the actions for its performance.

    In the passage of time, the methods of cooperation and required contributions for the material needs of performance of the responsibility led to the use of the mechanisms of county governments for revenues and other requirements, but the oversight and direct engagement of the parents in that performance remained. From those beginnings of governmental involvement, the smaller schoolhouses and County high schools proceeded through consolidations that gave rise to systems to accommodate the changes in population flows.

    Slowly but steadily the operations of the systems became institutionalized and a further departure of transfer of control over the determination of the objectives and means of those operations passed to the “managers” who previously had been responsive to parental concerns, and became responsive to political concerns related to revenues and incomes – as well as to the means for carrying out operational responsibilities. Operational responsibilities rose to the same level of priority as educational responsibilities; hierarchies evolved for those needs and the process of institutionalization was well underway and is with us today.

    There is no reason not to continue with attempts to modify the systems that make up the institutionalized responses to the transferred responsibilities for elementary and secondary education. There is every reason to continue with the emerging concepts of restoring the locus of those responsibilities, probably piecemeal initially, by stages, to the communities, families and individuals who have lost their connections with those responsibilities.

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