Government that Works for Schools and Children
Introduction and summary
State governments continue to struggle to carry out their obligations under federal law to ensure that students in high-poverty elementary and secondary schools receive a good education. The initial push in the 1960s to oblige state departments of education to direct federal education funding to these woefully neglected schools caught the state education agencies unprepared. In the ensuing decades, the problem was exacerbated as the federal government ratcheted up the state agencies’ responsibilities for making the program work effectively to boost student skills. Now, with state budgets under considerable strain, the time has come for the federal government to take a hard look at the capacities of state education agencies to fulfill these progressive education mandates, and consider taking new steps to ensure their work is done well.
State education agencies today play a pivotal role in carrying out Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which aims to improve the education and life chances of students in the highest-poverty schools of nearly every school district in the nation. Enactment of Title I of ESEA massively expanded the federal presence in education, and its amendments have spelled out increasingly clear expectations for the results expected from the program. At the time the U.S. Congress first enacted ESEA, state departments of education were by and large unequipped to comply with the new law, 1 but over time these state agencies learned and adapted (if unevenly) to the new federal funding rules. But as Congress enacted new sets of ESEA amendments, the states continued to struggle to monitor and support local school districts and schools in educating students in schools eligible for Title I funding. Title I schools in which students continue to fall short of meeting achievement standards remain a severe national problem that the states are charged with fixing.
Two sets of amendments to ESEA proved to be particularly difficult for state education agencies to implement effectively and efficiently. The first was the reauthorization of Title I in the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, which asked states to create accountability frameworks for gains in student achievement and the statewide systems of support that would assist struggling school districts and schools. And the second was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which
brought new intensity to these existing Title I requirements as well as the new ones it added. The 2002 amendments introduced higher stakes and higher visibility to the measurement of student performance and the identification of schools in need of improvement.
For years, state directors of Title I programs have collectively bemoaned the lack of time, staffing, and funding to meet the expectations of Title I. Each round of rising federal expectations exposed the growing gap between what the federal law expected in program administration and what the states could do. And that gap is now gaping because of state layoffs at their departments of education. Never lavishly funded in the first place, state education agencies since 2007 have lost at least 10 percent of their operating budgets in a majority of states, according to a recent survey. Even the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which directed considerable federal funds to the state education agencies, made up for this decline in state funding in only two of the states that responded to the survey. Now, that federal stimulus money is no longer available.
But with crisis comes the opportunity to face a problem squarely and try new approaches. The problems at many state education agencies are structural and longstanding, which means that simply adding more money so they can handle their current Title I responsibilities is probably not the best solution, and certainly not the only solution. An observation made nearly 20 years ago about the capacities of departments of education by two close observers of state departments of
education (one a former chief state school officer) is equally apt today:
…many state agencies never have developed properly and fully as leadership organizations…. the great unspoken irony and paradox of inadequately supported state education agencies has continued into the 90’s. Thus, the fundamental weakness of many of these agencies has persisted despite the outpouring of rhetoric about the need for dynamic state leadership…[W]e must become much more attentive to the issue of state capacity to lead and implement.
Indeed, there remains a deep mismatch between hopes for state agency leadership on Title I for elementary and secondary students in their states and what many SEAs can in fact do. The problem calls for new solutions that support the more effective development and use of state capacities to implement Title I.
This paper reviews the recent history of the states’ administration of their Title I responsibilities, then describes the issues of federal Title I funding and the lack of capacity that impairs more effective implementation by state departments of
education. We then detail some options for amending the Title I legislation in ESEA when Congress takes up the reauthorization of the law later this year. Our recommendations, in brief, suggest that Congress:
• Craft a more manageable set of state responsibilities under Title I
• Provide federal competitive incentives for state capacity development when implementing Title I
• Authorize a bypass of state education agencies to award Title I funding to other agencies or non-profit groups to ensure effective implementation
• Create state consortiums for Title I assistance to draw upon the expertise and combined efforts of successful state programs
Taking one or more of these steps during the reauthorization of ESEA would clearly improve the current Title I funding structures at the state level—structures that include uniform expectations across states, and federal funding formulas that are mismatched with the work of improving schools and school districts.
As this paper will demonstrate, there is an urgent need for new thinking about the role of state education agencies in Title I school and district improvement. Where the students in high-poverty schools are not getting the opportunity to succeed, we must demand that state departments of education administer this key federal program much more effectively, and help them find the tools to do it.