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Comparing ESA Roles

Different Structures, Different Worlds:
ESAs Serving Students and Districts in Michigan and Massachusetts

By Russell Olwell and Kathryn Welby
Merrimack College

Introduction: Comparing and contrasting the role of ESAs in two states

Educational Service Agencies, or ESAs, are a key part of the nation’s educational infrastructure, but their forms and roles can vary greatly between states, and sometimes even within a state (Stephens and Keane, 2005). Nationwide, ESAs are collaborative in nature, often deeply connected to local education agencies formally through their school boards or more informally through their leadership. However, despite the similarities between ESAs, the differences in what they focus on and how they function can be striking, particularly between those that draw directly from tax revenues, and those that are part of a more entrepreneurial fee-for-service funding model. As one of the authors (Olwell) moved from Michigan to a new position in Massachusetts, he immediately noted different roles for ESAs and asked his colleague (Welby) why they had a more limited role in the state than his previous one. While in Michigan ESAs are a permanent part of the educational structure, in Massachusetts, ESAs are structured to be supporters of local districts (Local Education Agencies, or LEAs) that may voluntarily join a collaborative.

From the perspective of those working in higher education, ESAs can be a key resource for understanding and working within the local and regional educational landscape. ESAs are often the most knowledgeable institution about the range of activities and programming being undertaken in local school districts and can serve a key convening and matchmaking function when universities and colleges are seeking new ways to partner with school districts. ESAs can serve as a key neutral party to bring together meetings around issues and can also help set an agenda that LEAs, higher education, and local non-profits can then support. While often relatively small in administration and staff, ESAs can take leadership roles on issues such as math literacy, summer learning loss, school discipline reform, and college access and readiness in ways that an individual LEA could not, and in ways that outsiders to the system, such as colleges or non-profits, would not have the credibility to do.

The role of regional collaboratives in Michigan

In Michigan, Intermediate School Districts (ISDs), in some areas called Regional Educational Service Agencies (RESAs), can play a wide range of roles within their counties, depending on the leadership of the ESA and the direction provided by the ESA school board (members elected by local districts’ school boards) and from local superintendents (who meet regularly with the superintendent of the ISD). In a decade of experience in Michigan, one of the authors has seen the following roles taken on by ISDs:

Educational innovation

A Michigan ISD planned and implemented an early middle college, in association with a local university and in partnership with a consortium of local school districts. Based on this model, the ISD went on to advocate for and then create a new International Baccalaureate program high school that serves students from across the county (as well as an adjacent county), and an alternative school structured as a hybrid online/in-person program for students struggling to finish high school.

Supporting at-risk students

Michigan ISDs partner with local districts to serve special education students, with an aim to maximize inclusion. This meant offering many special education programs on-site at local schools rather than at a central location and developing new school models that could offer high quality instruction to both students with special learning needs and their peers. Unique to Michigan ESAs is the ability to seek taxpayer support for the provision of special education services.  The ISD also reached out to address important unmet needs as a co-founder of the county’s My Brother’s Keeper effort to help young men of color in their schools and their neighborhoods.


ISDs can serve in Michigan as a key convener of stakeholders, and serve as a neutral third party in many discussions between districts. When two local school districts were in dire financial straits, the local ISD served as a key convener to help move them towards consolidation. In the new district, the ISD stepped in to manage the school district consolidation effort, and provide leadership to the new district during the transition, supporting the district as a new school board and central office leadership were formed.

The role of the regional collaborative in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, ESAs play an important, but a less expansive role. The agencies that run these programs are called educational collaboratives, and they bring school districts together to form voluntary partnerships to create regional resources and programs for innovative educational practices. The governing board of the Collaborative consists of representatives from the constituent districts, either school committee members or the superintendent. These practices encourage school districts to address the many intensive and costly needs of special education services by providing an outplacement support for the most vulnerable students in need. Collaboratives are beneficial to students as they provide individualized educational programs to students that their districts are unable to support and provide.

Most (over 75%), but not all, Massachusetts districts are associated with regional collaboratives.  The goal of collaboratives is not only to save money on shared resources but to provide districts with diverse educational services and programs, including professional development.  Massachusetts has 25 educational collaboratives that support surrounding school districts, with a similar structure to the 56 ISDs and RESAs in Michigan, but generally, they have a more limited purview of activities.

Special Education and at-risk students

Collaboratives develop individualized educational programs for students with disabilities and youth at risk that are supported by the student’s district; they provide educational setting students can attend that facilitates learning to reach diverse needs. Many collaboratives are known for innovative initiatives that are developed within their means and district support. Specifically, some collaboratives provide unique and innovative online college preparatory courses that mirror the high standards and expectations of district instruction.  Another collaborative is focusing on providing project-based and therapeutic outdoor activities that build skills around positive relationship and self-advocacy. Innovative and alternative curriculum delivery is an important initiative of many Massachusetts collaboratives. The students who attend the collaboratives can come from member districts, elsewhere in the state, or even another state depending on the needs of the student. Unlike Michigan, Massachusetts collaboratives can serve special education students from well outside their service area, including outside of their state depending on district needs and the willingness of the Executive Director and board to do so.

Professional development

Collaboratives support teacher professional development initiatives that focus on providing intensive services for students in need.  Most collaboratives provide districts with professional development in Special Education Law, restraint training, Common Core curriculum training, WIDA, and other Massachusetts initiatives. They can also offer professional learning communities, graduate and undergraduate programs of study for employees of surrounding districts with a focus on Educational Licensure. Collaboratives typically partner with area colleges to offer for-credit coursework for educators.

Assisting districts

Collaboratives assist districts in planning and the implementation of state initiatives; can purchase cooperatively with partnering districts to alleviate cost burden on one district; provide a variety of learning opportunities to the students of the collaborative online, vocational programs, after-school programs; and can offer adult and early childhood services. This can include non-educational areas such as transportation, energy management, or technology as well.

In Massachusetts, collaboratives play a less expansive role than they sometimes do in Michigan, and are less often the major drivers of systemic educational innovation. One example relates to efforts around early colleges and dual enrollment. While collaboratives would seem the ideal structure to convene school districts and higher education, they are presently absent from the guidelines, and districts are expected to work directly and individually with community colleges or four-year institutions to develop programming. While some collaboratives have done work to pave the way for dual enrollment programs, particularly for special needs students, lack of consistent state funding for dual enrollment has not encouraged development in this area.

Collaboratives are determined by which districts join the collaborative, and over 40 districts are not a member of any collaborative (Special Commission on Educational Collaborative, 2013 and Emerson, 2009). In Massachusetts, state government and its Department of Elementary and Secondary Education play a hands-on role in K-12 education and are directly involved in many of the policy options (such as dual enrollment and Early Colleges) that ESAs might have taken on instead.

The above should not be read as a criticism of Massachusetts’ collaboratives, many of whom offer highly innovative programming within their main areas of expertise. With a tighter focus on areas such as special education, alternative education, and professional development, collaboratives can work on programming in depth for their key population–students with special needs–and can connect with other stakeholders, such as employers, to offer students a more viable future. The work of collaboratives connecting students with special needs to careers is particularly important, and collaboratives have developed outstanding programming in this area. Some collaboratives have also taken a lead role in professional development, and in bringing programming from local colleges and universities directly to district staff who need it.


Finally, the governmental structure of counties makes a difference in the two states. In Michigan, county government was a bedrock of how Michigan was settled and developed, and in a relatively large state, counties remain a key level of government to address regional concerns. In less populated regions, many ISDs serve more than one county, helping provide services across a larger area. Since all Michigan school districts are located within a county, leaving a district outside the ISD/RESA structure would be unthinkable. In Massachusetts, over half the state’s counties have been abolished, leaving local/city government and state government as the sole two levels of government. Thus, while in Michigan, ESAs are tied to a functional county government system, Massachusetts’ collaboratives have been unmoored to county government, having ties to only local districts that choose to be members, as well as the state Department of Secondary and Elementary Education. Further, while Michigan ISDs/RESAs are part of the local property tax system, and can draw from special millages, collaboratives in Massachusetts are tied to a fee-for-service system with constituent districts, and therefore need to focus on programming that generates revenue, with little financial incentive to take on larger, systemic issues.

From the perspective of those working in higher education, both models of ESAs are valuable and should be leveraged to advance educational best practices. While Michigan’s ISDs  engage in far-ranging and productive work, Merrimack College is in the process of partnering with our local collaborative to provide field experiences and career information to our students in areas such moderate disabilities, and to help our students better understand the full range of careers available to those who want to work with children and adults with disabilities. While the two states are on different ends of the continuum of ESA structures and functions, both models can and do serve as vital partners to higher education.


Emerson, L. (2009). Educational Service Agencies in Massachusetts: Building Capacity in Small School Districts. Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives. Boston, MA.

Stephens, R. and Keane, W. 2005). The Educational Service Agency: America’s Invisible Education Partner. Lanham, MD.

Special Commission on Educational Collaboratives (2013). Report to the Legislature. Boston, MA.

Russell Olwell is Associate Dean in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College. He can be reached by phone at 978-837-5612 and by email at 

 Kathryn Welby is Professor of Practice in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College and a doctoral student at Southern New Hampshire University. She can be reached by phone at 978-837-5253 and by email at

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