To Take the Helm, State Ed Agencies Need a Navigator

Today the Fordham Institute added to a growing stack of reports about what states can do to support dramatic improvements in K-12 education. It’s important to think hard about states, which have constitutional authority over K-12 and provide most of the money, but historically have done little to drive reform efforts.

Enter our friend and colleague Andy Smarick, whose latest report with Juliet Squires suggests state education agencies can play an effective leadership role if they become smaller, and get most of their work done via contracts and partnerships with independent organizations. These ideas, adapted from the pioneering work of Osborne and Gaebler on reinventing government, suggest SEAs need to develop the capacity to steer rather than row.

While Andy and Juliet’s take on the state role is clarifying, it leaves three nagging questions: First, how will states find the independent providers they need to perform key functions, including providing technical assistance to low-performing schools? Second, how will the SEA attract high-level staff capable of overseeing key contractors? Finally, how will the SEA get the political backup to act decisively?

It is not evident that robust private or nonprofit sectors exist for many of the functions Andy and Juliet propose to leave to other organizations. In Washington state, the SEA already contracts with private parties for test development and school turnaround support, and there is little evidence that these services are significantly better (or worse) that those offered by states directly. In Ohio, nonprofits are empowered to authorize charter schools but evaluations suggest these groups tend to do worse than other types of authorizers.

Because the quality of services offered by third-party organizations varies considerably, the skill of those in steering positions is paramount. But, how can SEAs attract the high-level staff who will set tasks for contractors, tell the difference between competent and weak bidders, and sanction inept or incompetent providers? The Air Force invests heavily in staff that buys their crucial weapons systems; are SEAs (and the policymakers that support them) prepared to do the same? SEAs that want to steer need to start by building a bench of people with the technical skills to do so.

Finally, we have to recognize that SEAs are often weak because of politics and overcoming these dynamics will be difficult. In a recent report on SEA capacity, Patrick Murphy and I found that few states were strategically leveraging the resources they had and that the biggest deficit was one of will on the part of chiefs and elected officials. Legislatures haven’t wanted to pay for high-level staff, and haven’t wanted state officials to take actions that annoy their local superintendents, unions, and school board members. Today, chiefs’ ability to weather their time at the helm depends greatly on their political skill, fortitude, and good luck. Transformation of SEAs will require a serious effort to convince governors and legislators that states can play a more constructive role, and that doing so will lead to real benefits for children. Reformers are starting to make that case intellectually but have barely begun addressing it politically, saying why elected officials should support state actions that some constituencies will oppose.

While the prescription to shrink the size of SEAs may be an attractive one to those who see these agencies as ineffective, it is at best an incomplete fix. Form, function, and politics matter much more. Over the coming year, we at CRPE will continue to study these issues and to help states as they seek to leverage their investments in K-12 toward greater effect.

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