National Study Finds That Federal Funding Can Hinder Operations at DPI

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

A new round of in the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top is coming up soon, but a new study suggests that Superintendent Tony Evers and his crew at the Department of Public Instruction may be better served without a new source of federal funding.

A recent study from Dr. Frederick Hess and a group of scholars, titled State Education Agencies as Agents of Change, looks into the dynamic field of statewide education operations and management. The research found a national network of institutions that are tangled in webs of compliance and bureaucracy, keeping many reforms at bay. In short, outdated routines and often duplicative reporting are holding back several states from reaching their educational potential.

Federal  mandates have put an additional focus on state education agencies (SEAs), such as Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and expanded the scope of their role in education. As a result, the scale of their involvement has increased dramatically, making administrators like Evers important figures in the public realm of educational policy implementation.

The report argues that this heightened importance has come at a cost to education reform. Hess’ study finds that these organizations are burdened by several factors, including overly bureaucratic structures, a lack of transparency to the public, and a primary focus on federal compliance rather than implementing innovative reform.

These national trends hit home in Wisconsin. While DPI does a solid job of presenting their data and work to the public through releases and a comprehensive website, their highly layered system makes it difficult to process some of the information the department puts out. While supporters argue this structure is necessary to handle all the roles that DPI has to fill on both a federal and state level, the price paid for this comprehensive coverage is a lack of simplicity and usability.

One of the more interesting findings of the study suggests that federal funding can restrict the efficiency of SEAs. This has been especially relevant as Race to the Top heads towards its third round in late 2011. While this funding is lucrative, it also comes with strict restrictions. These mandates require careful administration and increase the amount of bureaucracy and compliance-watchdog oversight necessary at the local level. This ultimately limits the amount of work the SEA can commit to statewide projects.

This sentiment was echoed recently at the debut of Wisconsin’s school accountability design team. “It’s been a Faustian bargain,” Damian Betebenner quipped during a panel discussion at the team’s unveiling. He argued that the program’s tight deadlines and rigid structure can handcuff state agencies in its implementation. However, without tried and true results from winning states (the first round of grants was distributed just two years ago) it has yet to be seen whether or not this commitment will pay off.

The study, which can be found here, doesn’t explicitly single out Wisconsin, but the lessons here can be applied to the Badger State and its application of federal education mandates. Race to the Top is an ambitious program that the state has been inadequately prepared for in the past, but this inability to create a cohesive application may have saved DPI from a task that few SEAs can truly handle. In short, compliance and bureaucratic oversight have taken away the true focus of education reform and implementation at a statewide level.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has expanded to fill many roles in the past decade, but according to Hess’s study, much of this regulatory work has strained their overall effectiveness. These bureaucratic issues not only hinder how well DPI can perform, but also prevent reform from taking place within the department itself. This becomes an obstacle not only in the branch’s Madison offices, but also in the implementation and regulation of educational reforms across the state.