Monday, August 8, 2011

Greater flexibility with federal dollars would help state education agencies boost school improvement

Seattle, WA - State education agencies could do more to help their local school districts improve under-performing schools, according to a new study at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Despite diminishing resources caused by a slow economy and cuts in funding, adding flexibility to how federal dollars are used by states could free up monies to assist districts working to elevate school performance.

This is the conclusion drawn by researchers Patrick Murphy and Monica Ouijdani, who examined eight state education agencies (SEAs) to determine how they could respond to federal pressures for states to play a larger role in school turnarounds. Murphy and Ouijdani found that federal strictures dictate how monies are used for SEA staffing for certain programs. With some flexibility, SEAs likely could provide some additional support for typically underfunded school improvement initiatives.

Given the significant contribution to central [state agency] positions, Murphy and Ouidjani state, the federal government could allow greater flexibility in how SEAs distribute their resources. Otherwise, they observe, a combination of the economic recession, looming cuts in discretionary federal spending and depressed state revenues likely will limit the chances for state education agencies to assist school districts working to improve poor-performing schools.

The authors offer three possibilities that could help states assist school turnaround initiatives:

  • Greater flexibility in use of federal funds that support personnel in state education offices;
  • Contracting out some school improvement functions; and
  • Adjusting the Race to the Top program so that some of those funds could be used for SEAs to assist with school improvement initiatives.

Murphy and Ouijdani examined the capacities and activities of SEAs in California, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington. They focused in particular on how federal dollars to SEAs are distributed. Their findings are detailed in State Capacity for School Improvement: A First Look at Agency Resources, published by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.

Patrick Murphy is Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco. Monica Ouijdani is a Research Coordinator at CRPE, where she works on education finance issues.