Report: Federal Rules Bloat State Education Bureaucracies

Published May 13, 2014

Zealous education reform movements at the state and national level often burden state agencies with tasks they are ill-equipped to perform, says a new report.

In “The State Education Agency: At the Helm Not the Oar,” authors Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire recommend rethinking the role of state education agencies (SEAs).

Accepting federal demands in exchange for funds is at the crux of the problem, said Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.

“States report that 40 percent of the paperwork burden they deal with is to comply with federal regulations,” she said. “This is one of the reasons Texas didn’t apply for a federal Race to the Top grant. The governor and education commissioner said it would have only funded their schools for three days, but brought with it significant new compliance regulations.”

Hopping to the Federal Tune
A significant number of state employees spend all their time administering federal programs, said Squire, an associate at Bellwether Education Partners: “What you have are some really dedicated people that can’t be deployed to new initiatives because their position is funded by a particular federal program.”

At a recent public event, state Superintendent John White noted only 10 percent of education financing comes from federal taxes, but more than 50 percent of Louisiana education department staff spend their time complying with federal mandates.

There are now more than 100 federal education programs, most of which are competitive grant programs.

“With each new program comes more people, and it makes it more and more difficult for state-level leaders to streamline,” said Michael McShane, an American Enterprise Institute research fellow. “It creates these little fiefdoms.”

Big Issue Programs
The massive number of federal regulations under No Child Left Behind is a main reason nonteaching staff in public schools has grown seven times as fast as student enrollment since 1970, Burke said. Teachers are now just half of all public education employees.

“No raindrop thinks it’s responsible for the flood,” McShane said. “How slowly but surely can these programs be consolidated, streamlined, dispersed to states in a way that offers more flexibility and less administrative [oversight], to allow the people on the ground to make the decisions?”

Mandates that states spend a certain amount of money on special education to receive federal funding reduce the incentive for smarter spending, McShane said.

Recommending the Four C’s
The report authors recommend four major actions: Control, Contract, Cleave, and Create.

States should take more internal control over resources while streamlining data systems and compliance with state and federal laws, it says.

“Some of the recommendations are more immediately actionable than others,” Squire said. “Contract work is more actionable because states have already partnered with outside private companies or organizations to do a lot of work.”

SEAs were “not created—nor have they developed the core competencies—to drive crucial reforms,” the authors write. That’s why they should “cleave” from authorizing charter schools and similar programs.

That’s where “create” comes into play.

“We have to foster this section of NGOs that can step in and pick up the slack so states can be comfortable [cleaving] activities from government,” Squire said. “Some states have a little bit of that ecosystem, but a lot of states don’t.”

Effecting Reform
“While states do seem to have an addiction to that 10 percent of federal education funding, they are certainly longing for more flexibility from Washington mandates,” Burke said.

She pointed to Arizona, Florida, and Louisiana as models both for “the types of academic gains that are possible when states take charge and implement systemic reform” and “how to infuse previously unseen levels of innovation into their education systems” with school choice.

“The hope of the paper is that when state and federal policymakers are writing new laws and thinking about reforms they want to have happen, they consider that the SEA may not be the best organization to execute that policy or reform,” Squire said.


Learn more:
“The State Education Agency: At the Helm Not the Oar,” by Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, April 2014:


Image by Worapol Sittiphaet.