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State Education Agencies as Vehicles for Change?

By guest blogger Alexandra Rice

State schools chiefs, once seen as glorified accountants in charge of doling out money to local school districts, are today largely responsible for implementing many of the mandates handed down at the state and federal level, most notably under the No Child Left Behind Act. But many chiefs say they lack the necessary capacity to fully tackle these challenges, particularly adequate funding and personnel.

Those frustrations came through clearly at an event hosted by The Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute, which gathered several current and former state chiefs to discuss a joint report released today on the topic of SEAs as agents of change. The report highlighted four key findings:

SEAs are overly focused on compliance: Over the years state and federal rules have been layered one on top of another, making it exceedingly difficult for staff at the agencies to focus on enhancing school performance rather than just complying with regulations, said Cynthia Brown, co-author of the report and vice president of education policy at CAP. Staff at the agencies feel bound by these rigid laws and unable to move outside of them in searching for new solutions to problems, state chiefs said.

There is a lack of transparency: Determining budgets and staffing levels for each state agency was "tremendously difficult," Brown said. While the report estimated 40 percent to 70 percent of the typical agency's budget came from federal funding, even this was noted as a ballpark figure. But during the discussion one former commissioner of education, David Driscoll, of Massachusetts, strongly disagreed about the supposed lack of transparency, saying his state's budget was laid out on its website for anyone to see.

Federal funding can hinder SEA operations: SEAs often find themselves torn between state and federal governance. For new state chiefs, this can make things especially cumbersome when trying to delegate responsibility and can lead to confusion about the chain of command. AEI's director of education policy studies, Rick Hess, warned that the federal government needs to be very careful when dealing with SEAs to avoid overstepping its bounds.

There are bureaucratic obstacles to reforming the SEAs: State chiefs in attendance and some represented in the report cited hiring practices, in particular, as being difficult to overcome when looking to recruit new talent for their agencies. Many staff members at state agencies are stuck in routines that are outdated and lack imagination in working to improve student performance.

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said at the forum that he recognizes such issues. But, given the increasing demands and shrinking budgets, he said he worries about the ability of the SEAs to live up to their shifting responsibilities.

"What is happening with these chiefs is we have a very different person sitting in these states than we had historically," Wilhoit said. Managing the agency is no longer the chief's main job responsibility; rather, it's transforming the system in order to administer change.

Part of that shift has meant chiefs are increasingly moving into the spotlight.

For Deborah Gist, Rhode Island's commissioner of education, this has been a welcome challenge that has pushed her to rethink strategies when developing plans for her state, such as its winning bid in round two of the Race to the Top federal grant competition.

After losing in round one, rallying around winning the second round of Race to the Top allowed her to carve out an agenda for her state that encouraged reform, she said.

"It was this mobilizing of our state around the fact that we were not going to be defeated," Gist said. "And we came together in a way that was just—it was incredible."

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