Report: trim duties at state education agencies

2014-05-05T12:00:00Z Report: trim duties at state education agenciesBy LEAH TODD Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
May 05, 2014 12:00 pm  • 

As state lawmakers debate whether to pare down the Wyoming Department of Education amid a possible restructuring of the agency, a new national report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests that states do exactly that.

According to the report, state education agencies are being asked to do more than ever before, but their bureaucratic design may not be the best way to promote reform in schools.

Agencies like the Wyoming Department of Education were designed to address a relatively narrow set of tasks, like distributing and monitoring money, administering small federal programs and collecting data, the report says.

Since about the 1960s, state education agencies have seen an increase in their responsibilities -- if not in their size -- said Juliet Squire, an associate partner at nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners and a co-author of the Thomas B. Fordham report.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the latest iteration of which is known as No Child Left Behind, dramatically boosted federal spending on K-12 education, the report said.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Education increasingly looked to state education agencies to administer federal initiatives.

"What the report is trying to do is sort of press the reset button and say, 'Is the (state education agency) really the best one to do this work?'" Squire said.

The report suggests that instead of placing new reforms in the hands of state education agencies, states should keep the agency's functions to a minimum and allow school districts, nonprofits and other independent groups to lead.

Not every state has strong nonprofits to implement such reforms, Squire said.

Judging from the report's analysis, the Wyoming Department of Education is in some ways more laissez faire than other state education agencies.

Unlike state education agencies in some other states, the Wyoming Department of Education does not operate trade schools or schools for students with special needs and does not authorize charter schools.

"It's absolutely the government's responsibility to steer," Squire said. "But there are times when the government needs to step down and let others step up to take over the oars."

The report suggests that state education agencies set guidelines and expectations for education initiatives, whether that be creating charter schools, pushing technological innovation or certifying teachers.

But the state agencies ought to consider letting other nonprofit groups or local districts implement the initiatives, Squire said.

Some lawmakers agree

At a meeting in Cheyenne last month, the Joint Education Committee discussed the possibility of simplifying and clarifying the roles of the Department of Education.

The goal was to create more clarity between the jobs of the state agency, the elected state superintendent of public instruction and the appointed state Board of Education.

The latest attempt to reorganize the Department of Education was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in January.

The Wyoming Department of Education is primarily a compliance agency, overseeing compliance with state and federal regulations, said Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, a co-chairman of the Joint Education Committee.

"I'm envisioning a scenario that we could pare back the Department of Education in such a way that we push all of this compliance and ministerial-type work that our agency is currently doing ... down so our local districts can do a lot of that," Teeters said at the April meeting. "If we're duplicating efforts, I think it's worth looking at."

Kathy Christie, of the Education Commission of the States, said at the meeting that state education agencies nationwide began shifting their focus around the late 1990s.

"It turned from compliance to assistance," she said. "Going from compliance and regulation to, 'How do we improve education across the state?'"

Lawmakers continue to consider the role of the Wyoming Department of Education and its leadership in the state. The Joint Education Committee voted at the April meeting to draft a questionnaire for local school districts to weigh in on the issue.

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