A new genetic code for state education agencies

Robert Hanna

Andy Smarick and Juliet Square recently published a report arguing that state education agencies, or SEAs, lack the expertise needed to implement today’s education reforms. Federal policymakers expected SEAs to be “compliance examiners,” focused on monitoring districts’ use of federal education funds, they wrote. The authors argue that many of SEAs’ successes are limited to compliance and that SEAs are not capable of meeting the additional demands of educational innovation and reform. In a related blog post by Smarick, he refers to compliance and monitoring as being in the SEA’s “DNA structure.”

If compliance is really in SEAs’ DNA, did the federal government get the gene sequencing wrong?

Today, the Center for American Progress released three reports about the ways in which SEAs work within the current education governance system. The reports identify innovative approaches to changing the genetic code of SEAs given current demands for far-reaching education reforms. We argue that despite barriers, real or perceived, there are more effective ways for states to meet these demands—and that both federal policymakers and state leaders have roles to play.

As education policy researcher Patrick Murphy describes in his report, federal education regulations often have adverse impacts on states. Each federal fund comes with different strings attached. As a consequence, SEA leaders often silo their agencies by federal fund in order to make sure they meet compliance requirements. For example, staff working on projects funded by Title I are contained within one office, and staff working on projects funded by IDEA dollars are contained within another. As such, SEA staff often encounter arbitrary communication barriers between them, weakening the exchange of useful knowledge and impeding their collective action to improve schools.

Further, federal requirements for reporting how state employees spend their time can lead state education leaders to assign staff to work within one fund only. This makes it easier to comply but also leads to the creation of silos. Similarly, consider the federal government’s supplement-not-supplant (SNS) tests, which require districts to show that federal dollars fund additional support rather than replace state and local funding of prior education services. SNS also impedes innovation due to burdensome compliance tests and reporting requirements. To be clear, SNS is important for fiscal equity, but more streamlined tests would ease the reporting burden on states and possibly spur innovation.

Some states, however, are taking better approaches to compliance. Murphy points out that Colorado, Louisiana, and Tennessee have done more than others to ensure that districts spend federal dollars in more innovative ways while still complying with federal law. They have, for example, developed a “one-stop source of support” through one federal program director that districts and schools can go to for advice to help them spend federal dollars more effectively and more productively.

Unlike Smarick and Squire, the Center for American Progress recommends freeing up additional capacity for SEAs to meet the goals federal policymakers have set rather than devolve some of these roles to other entities. We argue that more flexibility yields more capacity for SEAs. We propose that the U.S. Department of Education allow states to suggest alternative arrangements for ensuring that federal dollars are spent in ways consistent with the intent of federal laws. Moreover, the Department should continue to highlight flexibilities that currently exist, such as simpler approaches to employee time reporting.

Many federal rules are in place for good reasons, particularly to ensure that public dollars are spent as they were intended, as other analysts have written. But often these rules can unintentionally make it challenging for SEAs to meet the very goals they are intended to support.

Nevertheless, states can still do a lot more in their current policy environments, particularly to break down silos. In one paper, I describe how the Texas Education Agency does not exhibit the tendency toward silos commonly found in other states. Texas pays for almost one hundred staff positions with money from more than ten separate education funds. In another paper, we highlight how Kentucky and Maryland have used “cross-functional groups” to bring together staff across different offices to address common goals, such as improving graduation rates or improving supports for school improvement.

Overall, our new reports highlight ways that federal policymakers and state leaders can produce better educational outcomes for today’s students. In particular, federal policymakers should improve the conditions in which states work by developing a new regulatory regime—a new genetic code—to ensure that SEAs have more flexibility to improve the lives of today’s students.

Robert Hanna is a senior education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.