At the event held by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), CAP Vice President Cynthia Brown gave an overview of the joint report of the potential roles of state education agencies (or SEAs). In her summary, Brown detailed four primary similarities in SEA’s across the nation. First, SEAs focus on compliance with the federal government hindered new SEA chiefs’ efforts to change the culture and mindset, which bogs down the SEA in bureaucratic and ineffective routines. Second, a lack of transparency does not allow taxpayers to see how public funds are used for budgetary and staffing purposes. It makes comparisons between SEAs across the nation that much more difficult. Third, federal funding restricts SEAs through their limitations and regulations, which ultimately sacrifice creativity for bureaucratic red tape. The fourth similarity is that the bureaucracy and its culture lead to little staff turnover, as well as strict civil servant regulations that prevent SEAs from getting the top talent available.
AEI Director of Education Policy Analysis Frederick Hess outlined their report’s recommendations to help SEAs become agents of change in the evolving public education landscape. At the state level, the report recommends that there needs to be a change in locked salary and staff requirements, as well as expanding the SEA chiefs’ ability to take over struggling schools on a limited basis. On the federal level, Hess pointed out that the federal government must provide political cover for SEAs to undo the years of bureaucratic culture and also create flexibility for the SEAs in decision-making. Hess recommends to SEA chiefs to first change SEA culture, increase transparency, and then attract top talent (through adjusting budgets) by partnering with local businesses and philanthropies.
In attendance as event panelists were Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers, David Driscoll, a former Commissioner of Education of Massachusetts, Deborah Gist, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education of Rhode Island, and Lillian Lowery, Delaware’s Secretary of Education. In the panel discussion moderated by Cynthia Brown, several important questions were raised regarding the issues with SEA compliance with federal regulations and the problems of an entrenched bureaucracy. Driscoll remarked that SEA chiefs may complain about the tough job they face in integrating high achieving education standards and goals, but in the end they have to make the decision to concede defeat or press on. Lowery found at the SEA level that the main focus of the agency was compliance, rather than reaching high education standards and goals. Gist championed President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and claimed it led to change and momentum to improve education in the state of Rhode Island. When asked by Hess about the political nature of SEA chiefs, Lowery responded simply that, “it is politics” and is a part of the job. Both Lowery and Driscoll pointed out that they took $15,000 to $20,000 in pay cuts to join the SEAs of their respective states to illustrate the lack of competition between the SEAs and their own school districts. The panelists illustrated the influence of unions in the education sector when Driscoll recalled a friend say that he “hated his union members but loved his teachers.” Lowery added that she meets with local union leaders at least on a monthly basis to go over their concerns and to quell or confirm rumors.
In the end, the panel discussion only confirmed the recommendations that the joint CAP and AEI report outlined in order to make state education agencies an agent of change in the ever-changing public education landscape.