Education Week - February 15, 2017 - 17
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Devos-little margin for error.
"For new chiefs coming in, they're
potentially walking into a firestorm," said Stephen Bowen, the
Council of Chief State School Officers' strategic-initiative director for
In prior years, education leaders in
many states had some running room
in getting to understand a state's
school system, the capacity of education departments to roll out policy,
and the political will for change.
But, on the first day of the job last
month, core state legislative leaders
and school superintendents were
grappling with plans to turn around
their states' worst-performing
schools, allocate millions of federal
dollars to districts, construct new
English-language-learner tests, and
retool teacher-evaluation systems.
Education advocates and district
officials are still determining where
state chiefs and legislative leaders stand on issues such as school
choice, testing, and accountability.
"Seeing all this disruption at the
top levels can be unnerving to the
education community," said Michelle
Exstrom, the education program
director at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Experience always matters because you
need the legislators who tend to be
more experienced and have a better
sense of different education policy
approaches that have been tried
through the years."
Fewer than half the lawmakers
who head up their chambers' education committees have K-12 education experience, such as teaching or
serving on a local school board. Ten
state superintendents have never
taught in a classroom.
While that doesn't necessarily mean they're unqualified to
do the job-Exstrom said fresh
voices, in fact, can bring about
positive change-they will have to
move quickly to craft state policies
that may have unintended consequences at the local level this fall
when ESSA plans are expected to
go into effect.
Consultants describe state board
meetings, listening sessions, and
department staff meetings in recent weeks in which wide-eyed
legislators and superintendents
are inundated with a slate of acronyms, and technical-but important-details of education policy,
process, and research.
Groups such as the NCSL and
the CCSSO have dispatched staff
members across the country in recent weeks to shore up leaders with
hourslong Education Policy 101 sessions. With a dearth of knowledge at
the top, others can end up making
"We're putting more policymaking into the hands of the executive
branch, lobbyists, and even capital staff," said Wendy Underhill,
an NCSL researcher and program
director who tracks term limits
among state legislators.
Education Week examined the résumés and tenure of every state's
chief education official and of those
who chair the committees tasked
with handling the bulk of K-12 policy in every state legislature. (All
50 state legislatures are in session
Among the new education committee chairpersons, some have
experience with K-12, while others
are veteran lawmakers but have no
specific background in education.
Experts point to a variety of reasons for the number of new state
chiefs and new education committee chairs. For one thing, term limits passed in several states in the
1990s have dramatically shortened
the tenure of state legislators, which
can leave some committee chairs va-
Steep Learning Curve
On State K-12 Policy
cant. Across the country, about 1,200
of the 7,400 legislators this year are
new to the job.
In addition, amid the political
volatility and pressures of policy at
the state level, schools chiefs are resigning, or getting fired, at a record
pace-currently, they have an average tenure of 2½ years.
Continuity an Issue
The result can be a lack of continuity.
"New legislators and superintendents are not interested in inheriting someone else's agenda and then
sustaining it," said David Conley, a
researcher at the University of Oregon, in Portland, who studies education policy. "You can't go back to
constituents and say, 'Look at what
I did.' "
In New Mexico, Senate education
committee Chairman William Soules,
a Democrat appointed last month
after four years as vice chairman,
said his committee goes through
about six bills a day in a matter of
three hours. Some bills have misleading titles; others are full of acronyms that the former teacher and
education professor said would baffle
anybody that doesn't have a general
sense of education policy.
"I couldn't imagine not having
an extensive background in education," Soules said. "I looked over in
the corner one day, and one of the
committee members' eyes were huge
because she can't swallow any more
coming out of the fire hydrant."
In some states, having a new superintendent this year has thrown
into question the details of ESSA
plans first crafted by previous state
leaders last year when the federal
law was first passed.
Washington state Superintendent
Chris Reykdal, along with Hans
Zeiger, the Senate committee chair,
both new to the job this year, will
take "to lightning speed" the pace of
crafting that state's plan so that it's
mostly completed by the end of this
legislative session in April.
On the first day of his job, Reykdal replaced his deputies and the
department's chief financial officer
and dramatically reorganized the
department. The state is expected to
redesign its K-12 funding formula
this year. "It's a very unique time for
us," Reykdal said.
Montana's superintendent of public instruction, Elsie Arntzen, elected
last November as the state's first Republican superintendent in 28 years,
said she will retract the ESSA plan
submitted to the federal government
in December by her predecessor
and make several changes, includ-
Frank Edelblut speaks at a hearing
on his nomination to lead New
Hampshire's education department,
State chiefs' spots have seen high
turnover rates nationally.
ing to the state's long-term goals,
the amount of control local districts
have, and the indicators on their accountability system.
"When we pull it back, I want
more discussion in all of our communities," Arntzen said.
Every morning, working to build
a relationship with lawmakers, she
serves them hot coffee and apple
fritters at the state's capitol building. She's also had her share of fires
to put out: In her first month on the
job, a whistleblower accused the
prior superintendent of misrepresenting the state's ACT scores to the
federal government, and her employees had to be evacuated from an education department building because
of a gas leak.
"I have a great sense of humor
about it all," Arntzen said. "This
time is a wonderful opportunity for
myself and those deployed in the
field to make sure we put Montana's
Librarian Holly Peele and Assistant
Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky
contributed to this report.
The lawmakers heading up key
education committees in half the
state legislatures are new to those
posts this year-even as they prepare
to handle crucial decisions on rollout
of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
WITH NO OUTSIDE
EXPERIENCE IN K-12
SCHOOLS OR POLICY
New education committee
chairs in both chambers
New education committee
chair in one chamber
SOURCES: Education Week; National Conference
of State Legislatures
EDUCATION WEEK | February 15, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 17