Regulatory Flexibility in Schools

What Happens When Schools Are Allowed to Change the Rules? Gao ID: HEHS-94-102 April 29, 1994

To enable school principals and teachers to attempt improvements in education, the federal government and some state governments have provided flexibility to schools as part of education reform initiatives by both reducing or eliminating regulations for schools through government action, such as legislative change, and waiving specific regulations upon request on a case-by-case basis. Under some state regulations, for example, a teacher might be discouraged from shortening the time devoted to some subjects--such as driver's education--in order to provide more in-depth coverage of difficult subjects--such as calculus. GAO studies the regulatory flexibility efforts of the following three states: California, Kentucky, and South Carolina. GAO (1) describes state regulatory flexibility efforts, (2) describes how schools used flexibility to attempt improvement, (3) determines what accountability systems states have implemented to ensure that children benefit from these efforts, and (4) determines how these efforts affected children with special needs.

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.


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