SEA Change: Supporting States During a Time of Upheaval

by Leona Christy, CEO at Catalyst:Ed

The COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent allocation of ESSER funding, has underscored the crucial, yet often under appreciated, role played by State Education Agencies (SEAs) in shaping our nation’s education system through the funding priorities they set, the policies they articulate, and the support they offer to schools and systems. However, to address the vast array of needs and challenges that have arisen, these agencies must quickly ramp up capacity. In response, Catalyst:Ed launched the SEA Exchange, a pilot designed to help SEAs access additional capacity and deep expertise so they can meet their pressing and immediate needs, while also creating opportunities for them to exchange ideas and learn from one another. 

The pilot was initiated in Dec 2021 with five participating states (Colorado, District of Columbia, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas), with a combined reach of 7.6M students. Through the SEA Exchange, participating SEAs were able to access individualized technical assistance and capacity-building support to tackle their priorities. The program also featured monthly calls with Relationship Managers from Catalyst:Ed for thought partnership and resource requests and connections to peers through network-wide calls and 1:1 connections. 

In our end-of-pilot survey,  100% of participating SEAs agreed that the SEA Exchange helped them address key priorities that would otherwise have been delayed. All of the projects undertaken by the states have either met their goals or are on track to do so, and are yielding useful insights into how we can support SEAs as they make the pivots necessary for this time.  

Here are three reflections emerging from our first cohort:

  • States are taking on projects across a wide range of areas: The disruptions caused by the pandemic and the resources made available by the ESSER funding have urged state agencies to not just take on new projects, but also make progress on long-held priorities. Thus, while addressing unfinished learning remains a huge priority for all states, we also saw states taking on projects in many other areas. States accessed providers from the Catalyst:Ed network to identify learning acceleration strategies for districts, support a statewide taskforce to address the needs of students with disabilities, develop a virtual school governance framework, optimize technical assistance programming for LEAs, and more. Additionally, states also leveraged the network to improve processes and build internal capabilities through projects focused on performance management and the collection and use of state-level data. 
  • There is an opportunity to rethink staffing models to meet capacity needs: Despite the availability of funding, recruiting and retaining talent remains a challenge at state agencies, with many critical positions taking a long time to be filled. As a result, states are starting to think about how they might staff projects, especially those that are time-bound, in innovative ways. These include leveraging highly experienced and skilled short-term talent for time-bound projects, entering into state-level partnerships with external entities for district support, and redefining roles within departments so staff members can focus on the most important components of their work. 
  • Philanthropy can play a role by offering flexible and timely funding to address time-sensitive needs: Although ESSER has brought an unprecedented level of federal funding to state agencies, some funds are restricted, and many states require authorization from the state board of education or the state legislature before they can award or obligate the remaining funds. This has resulted in a lack of readily available funds available to address critical, time-sensitive needs. Against this context, philanthropy can play a vital role by making available flexible funding that can be used to launch projects in a timely manner while states figure out how to support those projects longer-term with other dollars.

One of the most heartening aspects of our work with state agencies is the opportunity to work with state-level leaders who are bringing deep passion and commitment, and decades of wisdom and experience to their work in this pivotal moment. There is real energy around supporting schools and systems to ensure that all students are feeling fulfilled and succeeding in school. We look forward to continuing to work and learn with these unsung heroes as we move into the second phase of our work with SEAs. 

Catalyst:Ed is expanding the SEA Exchange to five new states. Learn more here and contact us at [email protected].

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