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In Federal-State Relations on Education Policy, Should Locals Get Priority?


In a K-12 policy landscape where the focus is often on what people in glamorous federal and state positions believe, forcing local officials to live in constant fear of audits and paperwork and giving them none of the power to pursue their own ideas is counterproductive.

That was one of the main messages from a June 13 panel of officials and analysts hosted by the Center for American Progress on how federal decision-making impacts states, and where the U.S. Department of Education could ease the burden on states to comply with certain policies.

The solution in many cases, speakers on the panel said, lies in many cases with the people who are often victimized, not empowered by, rules about "who's paying for the stapler," as U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle put it during the panel discussion.

"I just feel that they come from a source of mistrust," Delisle said of regulations and audits that, she stressed, didn't actually help her with school improvement when she was Ohio's state chief. "We don't trust people to spend the money right."

Panelist Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (who also writes a blog for edweek.org) was more blunt: "Public policy is always about distrust."

Patrick Murphy, a University of San Francisco professor who has studied state education department capacity, said three factors have combined to create problems for school improvement. The restriction on how federal funds are spent by the state education departments, the refusal of state lawmakers to boost funding for those state departments, and the increasing pressure to demonstrate improvement at low-performing schools often cause stagnation. One result, he said, is the tendency by many states to spend much more on identifying low-performing schools than they do with actual interventions.

This monetary and regulatory environment, he said, discourages creativity and proactivity by local school officials: "We have such an irrational obsession with the negative outlier."

As an example of an approach that works, Delisle said the federal Education Department has been connecting states where the School Improvement Grant program had produced positive results with those that were frustrated. She said that the best returns from SIG have been where principals received the most power and the role of the central office was reduced. Even here, however, she worried that stories about SIG's lack of success in certain schools would filter back to Washington and dim enthusiasm among officials for further such efforts. (At the same time, it's also unclear whether SIG has a generally positive track record since it began.)

But Hess also argued for a cultural change where people used to the dull routine of complying with higher-ups were instead encouraged to look for their own solutions and ask their superiors, "How can we do this?" instead of "Can I do this?" Too much attention is paid, he said, to meetings and initiatives driven by philanthropic foundations where prominent officials agree with each other, as well as federal and state governing structures and restrictions.

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