Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rethinking the State Role in Education

States can do a lot more to promote effective schools. But what?

Answering this long-neglected question is one of the next frontiers of CRPE’s work. As we and other thought leaders, like Andy Smarick at Bellwether, take it on, the experiences of leading states—Louisiana, Massachusetts, Florida, and Tennessee—provide a starting point.

The state’s responsibility in education is a heavy one. Though state constitutions differ in detail, all require states to fund and organize an effective education system. In order to fulfill these responsibilities, states have important, even coercive, powers. They tax citizens and compel parents to send children to school. They create local school districts to ensure that there is a school for every child.

But states are surprisingly ineffective in dealing with local school districts, and as a recent report by Patrick Murphy and Ashley Jochim shows, they don’t use a good number of the powers they have. Many states treat school districts as if they were constitutionally established branches of government rather than (as is the case) creatures built at the state’s discretion. States habitually nibble at the edges, establishing regulations on everything from graduation requirements, days and hours of school operation, and teacher certification. Yet few have figured out what to do when a district is financially solvent but doing a terrible job educating children.

In our effort to rethink the state role, some new principles are emerging.

First, states need to create databases that track the annual development of every student and make it possible to flag both extremely productive and consistently ineffective schools.

Second, some form of local oversight is necessary. Though some have suggested oversight can be handled by large numbers of independent charter authorizers empowered to operate anywhere in the state, this alone can’t work. Some agency with local knowledge is needed to track local demographic and economic changes to make sure the supply of schools is adapting to local needs and that every child has the choice of at least two good schools. This agency doesn’t need to operate schools directly, and it doesn’t need to be called a school district. But it must have the authority to open new schools and force consistently underperforming ones to close, no matter who has authorized them.

Third, states must not deprive themselves of options. They should regard the existence of any public oversight body as contingent on performance and be prepared to reconstitute, split up, or rebuild any charter authorizer or local agency that proves negligent or corrupt. States can also transfer responsibility for a group of schools from an unsound oversight body to a better one. A recovery school district or other state entity that can close terrible schools and create better options for the children in them is a valuable state instrument. But its existence does not eliminate the need for effective local agencies and disciplined charter authorizers.

Fourth, states should encourage innovation by creating a financially level playing field for all school providers, incumbent or new. Schools should be funded based only on the numbers and attributes of children they enroll, and assessed on student academic growth, school completion, college enrollment and completion, and ability to find work. Schools that manage to get better results with less money should not have their funds pulled.

How will these four principles be implemented in a particular state? Well, that’s what we need to work on. The new state role will make the existing state education agency obsolete, but it won’t eliminate the need for some state government organization. This agency will need the authority to fund schools equitably, oversee local agencies and charter authorizers, and manage detailed data on student progress and school performance. It can use contractors for many things, but the agency must also exercise governmental power. States might differ on what they call this agency, and whether it arises via transformation of the existing state education agency or is built from scratch.

In the future, CRPE will formulate alternative ways to put these principles into action. We also hope that, as with the Portfolio School District Network, we can help states change in ways that fit their particular politics and talent pools, and evaluate and refine the results.

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