The Complications of State-level Education Policymaking

With the US Department of Education now approving state ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) plans, attention turns to those plans’ contents. This includes how states intend to help kids assigned to persistently struggling schools — one of K-12 education’s perennial challenges. The need to do something different is pronounced because of the long history of unsuccessful “school turnaround” approaches and the failure of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program.

But a recent study by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success found the first batch of state plans were “mostly vague and non-specific” in this area. Generally, the states did little to explain how they intend “to help increase student achievement, increase options for students, or intervene in chronically low-performing schools.” Why?

For years, some reformers have argued that powerful establishment-oriented interest groups prevented government leaders from acting boldly here. This weekend, a Washington Post article suggested it could be because states’ don’t know what to do.

There’s another explanation: Doing things differently in this domain necessarily upends longstanding arrangements—and the consequences can be legion and unwelcome. In the new National Affairs, I argue today’s K-12 system is durable because, first, it’s based on principles many people hold dear; and, second, it’s terribly difficult to unwind century-old policies. So, for example, all families with students assigned to failing schools could be empowered with school choice. But that would diminish the authority of local school boards; require changes to policies on facilities, transportation, enrollment, and funding; potentially lead to school closures and job losses; undermine “neighborhood” schools; and more. In other words, load-bearing walls of the traditional model are compromised by this approach.

Recent research on the groundbreaking New Orleans reform approach provides some examples. After Katrina, the city’s troubled school system was fundamentally altered. Today, nearly all of its public-school students attend charter schools, and there’s a significant voucher program allowing kids to attend private schools. The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans — a Tulane-based collaborative — has studied numerous aspects of these reforms. Among the most notable findings is that since Katrina, the city has seen astonishing gains in test scores and high school graduation and college-going rates. As Doug Harris, the initiative’s director, wrote, “We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

For some reformers, the takeaway was obvious: Replicate NOLA’s approach.

But Harris and colleagues found that while reform advocates were right about their buoyant predictions, critics were right about some of their concerns, too. In a series of valuable reports, including several recently released, ERA found, for instance, that initial reforms led to the dismissal of thousands of teachers; NOLA teachers today report lower job satisfaction, less job security, and less autonomy; average teacher salaries are lower and there are fewer teachers per pupil; and the teaching force has grown less black, experienced, and local. All of this is on top of the passage of politically difficult reforms related to special-education funding, school enrollment, and the power of the local board.

In other words, though the reforms had measurable, meaningful benefits for students, they also had a major — and not entirely positive — influence on democratic self-determination, the workforce, compensation, race relations, and local authority. The previous system had created a peaceful equilibrium on those matters; the reforms unsettled it, contributing to a backlash, which led to a new law re-empowering the local board.

To those not engaged in state policy, the lack of “bold” reforms being implemented under ESSA might seem like evidence of state leaders’ resignation or capitulation to special interests. But the new federal law, while it decentralized authority to states, didn’t make all of the problems faced by state policymakers disappear. They need to find politically palatable blends of laws, regulations, and practices related to standards, tests, funding, facilities, transportation, accountability, salaries, benefits, and certification that somehow simultaneously adhere to the principles of public education; boost student outcomes; protect educators; empower families; respect local history and custom; maximize the use of public resources; minimize disruption; and encourage innovation. Not easy. As NOLA’s experience shows, an audacious plan can succeed spectacularly on some dimensions and not on others.

It is sometimes said that the last 15 years of federal over-activity in education caused “learned helplessness” among state policymakers — they don’t know what to do or are afraid to do it because of Uncle Sam’s intrusiveness. I, respectfully, disagree. I think because we’ve been so obsessed with Washington, we’ve lost sight of the enormous complications of state education policymaking — complex histories, different branches and levels of government, competing interest groups, and so on. The modesty or inaction of state leaders shouldn’t be read as obtuseness or lassitude but as the evidence of these complications.

Said another way, many federally focused reformers of recent vintage have had the luxury of offering conceptual exhortations — “Decentralize!” “Equity!” “Higher standards!” “Close the achievement gap!” — because Uncle Sam doesn’t run the nation’s schools. Now that authority is back in the hands of those who do run systems of schools, the question isn’t about whether to have better tests, more school choice, different funding formulas, more CTE, or more rigor. The question is how?

Those willing to shift their focus from Washington to state capitals will swiftly learn just how hard it is to answer that question.

— Andy Smarick

Andy Smarick is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

This post originally appeared on AEIdeas.

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