Never before has more been asked of State Education Agencies (SEAs), commonly known as state departments of education. In recent years, policymakers at the state and federal level have viewed the SEA as the default entity for implementing new and sweeping K -- 12 initiatives -- everything from Race to the Top grants and ESEA waivers to teacher evaluation reform and digital learning.
But SEAs were designed -- and evolved over decades -- to address a relatively narrow set of tasks: distributing state and federal dollars, monitoring the use of these funds, and overseeing the implementation of federal and state education programs. They were not created -- nor have they developed the core competencies -- to drive crucial reforms. Accordingly, we argue that despite the best efforts of talented, energetic leaders, SEAs will never be able to deliver the reform results we need.
But there is an alternative. We should view the SEA through the lens of Reinventing Government
(1993), the path-breaking book by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. In short, Osborne and Gaebler call for state agencies to "steer" more and "row" less. Here, we call for federal and state leaders to apply their thesis to SEAs, scaling back the tasks SEAs perform and empowering nongovernmental organizations to take up the slack.
We offer the "4Cs" model (control, contract, cleave, and create) for rethinking state-level K -- 12 reform work. In practice, this means pursuing activities on two parallel tracks. On one, we should make the SEA a far leaner organization, able to execute a narrow set of activities. On the other, we should foster the growth of a new state-level reform ecosystem composed of a range of entities -- primarily independent public entities or nonprofits -- able to carry out key reforms.