Cutting Red Tape

Overcoming State Bureaucracies to Develop High-Performing State Education Agencies

State education leaders face real barriers—legal and cultural—to building state education agencies that can meet today’s education reform goals. However, there is more they can do within the current policy environment if they are willing to break out of old habits and explore new approaches.

State leaders have described a range of state laws and rules that direct or restrict their activities in nonproductive ways. (iStock)
State leaders have described a range of state laws and rules that direct or restrict their activities in nonproductive ways. (iStock)

This report contains a correction.

States serve a special role in our public education system. Through elected legislatures, states have endowed their various state departments of education with powers over public education, which include granting authority to local entities—typically school districts—to run schools. In their oversight capacity, states—traditionally through state education agencies, or SEAs—monitor districts and schools to ensure that students are safe in school and that their education meets minimum quality standards. But such standards are typically not explained with any specificity. Inspired by a national movement to provide equitable opportunities to all children, states also collect and redistribute dollars intended to reduce local funding disparities. Moreover, many policymakers—particularly federal policymakers—and advocates have asked states to drive large-scale educational improvement through federal programs, including No Child Left Behind waivers, Race to the Top initiatives, or the No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, Title I School Improvement Grant program.

The space occupied by SEAs is also an ambiguous one. While SEAs and state departments of education have legal authority over schools, the districts and their schools manage the administration of education. At the same time, the success of SEAs as organizations ultimately depends upon what teachers are able to accomplish in classrooms. The paradox in all this is that there is a very long distance between a state department of education and the school classroom.

Under mounting federal pressure to be more involved in improving schools, SEAs have seen the scope and breadth of their work significantly increase in recent years. Traditionally, SEAs’ role is to closely monitor how districts and schools spend federal funds. But SEA staff are now also tasked with a long and growing list of responsibilities, including teacher licensure, distribution of funding, technical assistance to educators, the management and administration of end-of-year tests, and maintenance of state-level student and school databases. Perhaps one of the most pressing recent reforms—the implementation of college- and career-ready standards, such as the Common Core State Standards—also comes with substantial responsibilities for state agencies. SEAs are now responsible for professional development and support for teachers in these new, more rigorous standards, while also administering and grading new computer-based state assessments aligned with these new standards.

Because of this wide scope of duties, those who lead SEAs—not just their executive administrators but also other high-level managers—serve an important role in the future of our country as schools are pivotal to our global competitiveness. Many state education chiefs understand this role, calling on one another to “[focus] on those state-driven leverage points they are uniquely positioned to address – and [increase] their capacity to produce students ready to succeed as productive members of society.” Now it is up to SEA leaders to do what they can to meet these increased demands.

One major impediment to their success is bureaucracy. State leaders have described a range of state laws and rules that direct or restrict their activities in nonproductive ways. As a consequence, many state education leaders report that they cannot secure the talent they want and need. They say they are hampered in their ability to reorganize their agencies to be more efficient and lack the needed authority to terminate consistently poor-performing employees. State education leaders also have a large list of federal requirements for the types of activities they should be managing or executing with federal funds, including improving schools that the federal government required them to designate but with little additional funding.

In this paper, we explore the red tape that binds state education leaders as they seek to make today’s ambitious reforms a reality. While navigating this maze of laws and regulations can be daunting for these leaders, often limiting their actions, not all red tape is equally debilitating and certainly not as sturdy as state leaders understand them to be. The good news is there are workarounds, as demonstrated by some SEAs. In other instances, state leaders need help from policymakers in order to succeed where bureaucratic constraints still exist. Nevertheless, overcoming such obstacles is as much about interpersonal staff work as bureaucratic reform. Being effective at this is about breaking with norms and changing behaviors.

A comprehensive review of each state’s laws and regulations is beyond the scope of this paper. As such, this paper explores state laws and regulations in four states: California, Louisiana, New York, and Ohio. This purposeful sample, which varies by geographic location and politics, includes states with straightforward, easy-to-navigate resources on state laws. Along the way, we also point to specific examples of other states that have been successful at overcoming bureaucratic constraints. We also rely on research on SEAs and our previous research with these organizations. Research in this field is limited to a small set of analysts, and little information exists about what goes on within state agencies, particularly related to management and staffing. We hope that others will continue research in this field to expand our knowledge about the SEAs that we give with so much responsibility.

This report offers our perspective on the national landscape of relevant state laws and regulations based on our research. We believe that many rules considered set in stone are, in fact, very much open to interpretation and leave much more room than is assumed for state leaders to take bold actions to improve SEA performance. We also describe the management strategies and the bureaucratic requirements that limit or direct state education leaders. In some states, for example, states leaders’ decisions to reorganize their agencies must be approved by multiple bodies, such as the state board of education or the governor, or these leaders must follow pay scales that are already determined by state legislatures.

Clearly, SEAs need bureaucratic flexibility, and this report explore flexibilities already available to them and identify flexibilities that other entities such as the federal government or state legislatures could grant to provide optimal support for state education agencies. Texas, provides a prime example of how existing rules can aide a SEA in carrying out its charge. In Texas, the head of the SEA has a free hand to require staff to attend a variety of training activities as long as the training is linked to their work.

We organize our discussion by five strategic areas that are critical to the successful functioning of SEAs: developing skills; aligning the organization to priorities; evaluating staff performance; recruiting talent; and paying competitively. Finally, recognizing that the laws and rules that govern state education work are only a part of the whole picture, with organizational history and established routines playing a role, we also explore cultural matters affecting the work of SEAs. Many state education leaders report that staffs’ resistance to change makes it difficult to take innovative actions, for instance. Staffs’ organizational routines might be just as strong a barrier to SEA improvement as laws or regulations.

This paper discusses the laws and rules that govern how state leaders manage their agencies. We also highlight state leaders who have developed new strategies to overcome bureaucracy and improve their organizations. Former Louisiana State Education Chief Paul Pastorek worked with the state legislature to make a new organization for the Louisiana Department of Education a reality. Former State Chief Lisa Graham Keegan changed the civil service status of some employees by asking them to give away civil service protections in exchange for promotions.

Finally, we discuss other influences on how state leaders manage. Those influences included federal regulations that make it difficult to use federal dollars in innovative ways and state politics that may decrease employee civil service protections and increase state leaders’ authority over hiring and terminating staff.

The paper concludes with the following recommendations for federal and state policymakers:

  • Federal policymakers should improve and streamline compliance monitoring and reporting requirements.
  • State leaders should reexamine their states’ legal requirements and identify areas for agency improvement.
  • State policymakers—legislators and state employee organizations—should streamline civil service processes to improve state agency operations.

In many ways, the success of educational policies in the United States depends greatly on the success of state education agencies. To meet the current demands placed on them, it is imperative that state policymakers and state leaders work together to improve the conditions in which SEA staff work. This requires a critical and thorough re-examination of what these conditions actually are, and we hope that this paper can serve as a guide for that process.

Robert Hanna is a Senior Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Jeffrey Morrow is an associate at Sidley Austin, LLP, in the Litigation practice in the Washington, D.C., office. Marci Rozen is an associate at Sidley Austin, LLP, in the Litigation practice in the Washington, D.C., office.

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Robert Hanna

Senior Policy Analyst