Regulatory Flexibility in Schools:

What Happens When Schools Are Allowed to Change the Rules?

HEHS-94-102: Published: Apr 29, 1994. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 1994.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed three states' experience with providing regulatory flexibility to schools to better serve disadvantaged children.

GAO found that: (1) the three states' regulatory flexibility approaches varied; (2) the states also granted regulatory waivers to schools on a case-by-case basis, but they could not waive federal regulations; (3) schools in all three states attempted to improve how classes were organized and subjects taught by using multi-grade groupings, restructuring the school day, combining subjects into thematic groups, using team teaching, and allowing noncertified persons with special knowledge and skills to teach; (4) in addition to regulatory flexibility, other state efforts have contributed to school improvements; (5) barriers to improving schools through regulatory flexibility include schools' satisfaction with their students' performance, a belief that government auditors and monitors would focus on procedural compliance rather than results, the temporary status of some flexibility provisions, district officials' discouragement, a lack of school leadership, a lack of money and time for improvements, and the cautious, incremental nature of school change; (6) the states could not determine whether children benefitted from school improvements under regulatory flexibility because their programs were too new and they had not fully established accountability systems to measure children's performance against high standards; and (7) the states permitted less regulatory flexibility for programs for special-needs children because of federal regulations and the difficulty of assessing and reporting on their performance.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congressional actions on the Improving America's Schools Act (ISIA) included provisions that would grant more flexibility to schools. These provisions included links among planning, technical assistance and incentives; flexibility for sufficient time to plan improvement; and helping states and districts to strengthen assessment of children. While congressional actions did not address monitoring efforts, the Department of Education has initiated new procedures intended to bring monitoring in line with greater flexibility granted to states, districts and schools, according to an Education official.

    Matter: As Congress works toward reaching its final legislative decisions on the education initiatives under consideration, it should maintain features that would encourage schools to take advantage of the flexibility provided to attempt improvement. These features include: (1) linking flexibility with other efforts to improve schools, such as planning, technical assistance, and incentives; (2) removing obstacles that inhibit schools' attempts to improve, such as some forms of government monitoring; (3) granting flexibility for as long a period as possible to allow schools time to plan and implement attempts to improve; and (4) helping to strengthen the ways that states and districts assess the performance of children in relation to high standards, especially for children with special needs.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ISIA included such provisions.

    Matter: In enacting federal education legislation, Congress should consider providing increased flexibility to states, districts, and schools in return for increased accountability for student performance.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education has substantially revamped its monitoring procedures to include more emphasis on program outcomes, according to an Education official. This is an ongoing process that will involve continuous improvements.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should continue to assess the manner in which federal education programs are reviewed by auditors and, as needed, promote changes in the way that programs are reviewed in order to be more consistent with schools' attempts to improve. Specifically, the Secretary should determine if the: (1) emphasis on compliance with procedural regulations needs to be better balanced with an emphasis on whether programs are achieving the purposes for which they were authorized and funded; and (2) federal and state officials who review federal education programs need training to familiarize them with this change in emphasis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education has taken action in this area, according to an Education official. For example, the Office of Special Education Programs is working closely with the National Research Council to develop ways to include children with disabilities into new assessments; Education is also reviewing procedures used to assess the performance of children with limited English proficiency.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should work with knowledgeable educators and researchers as well as state, district, and school officials to develop ways to assess the progress of children with special needs in relation to high standards and to report on this program. In developing assessments that include children with special needs, give particular attention to those children who have been excluded from statewide assessments of performance: (1) children with limited English proficiency; and (2) some children with disabilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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