President Obama has mistaken bipartisan dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for a mandate to unilaterally re-write federal education law. This was evident last September, when the White House announced the Education Department would start granting waivers to exempt states from meeting NCLB requirements.
At that time, Congress had already been working for more than a year to craft various alternatives to the broken law. Lawmakers had gotten input from state and local leaders at a series of hearings and were engaging in a thoughtful process about how to reform federal education policy.
But the Obama administration wouldn’t wait for the legislative process to work. Instead, it told Congress that time was up. From here on, it decreed, the Education Department would start exempting states from the law, provided they agreed to abide by the administration’s preferred policies.
And that’s the catch: these are not simply waivers to provide relief to states from the onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind. These are conditions-based waivers, and the strings attached to this “relief” further tether states to Washington.
Today, the administration announced the first 10 states to “win” waivers.
The Department of Education has decided that Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, having promised to toe the line on Secretary Arne Duncan’s key policy preferences, will not have to meet the performance standards set forth in NCLB.
New Mexico’s application for a waiver was rejected, but it appears the Land of Enchantment will indeed amend its application and work with the Department to ensure it kowtows enough to receive a waiver as well.
Make no mistake. States need relief from No Child Left Behind. It’s a flawed law, and the bill’s 600-plus pages of legislative language—combined with additional thousands of pages of regulations—burden state and local leaders while failing to improve educational outcomes. Instead, it has merely deepened Washington’s involvement in local education, continued a maze of non-performing federal education programs, and fueled a massive increase in federal education spending.
In a recent hearing before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, one distressed school superintendent reported that compliance with just one part of NCLB requires the staff-time equivalent of diverting 82 instructional days away from students each year. “When compliance with reporting requirements becomes the focus of implementation,” the superintendent stated, “it sends a powerful message that the process is more important than the product.”
Imagine how that burden will grow when states that have received waivers must begin complying with the new conditions layered on them through the administration-imposed extra-legislative process.
One of the most concerning conditions attached to the waivers is a requirement that states adopt common standards and tests or have their state university approve their standards. None of the waiver-approved states opted for the latter. The administration’s various carrots and sticks ($4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants and potential Title I dollars) had already pushed them to begin implementing the Common Core national standards and tests.
When national organizations and the Department of Education dictate standards and tests, they effectively control what can—and can’t--be taught in local schools. The degree to which these critical decisions are about to be centralized and nationalized is unprecedented in America.
By circumventing Congress to grant strings-attached waivers, the White House has demonstrated disregard for the legislative process and determination to further tighten federal control over education.
If the Obama administration were truly interested in providing relief to states from NCLB’s mandates, it would be supporting Congressionally-borne alternatives like the A-PLUS proposal, which would fundamentally reduce the federal role by allowing states to completely opt-out of NCLB – no strings attached.
Educational control rightly belongs to parents and teachers and to state and local officials responsible for assuring that the children under their care get a get education. If decision-making is to be restored to its proper place, states must resist this latest federal power grab, resisting the siren call of waivers and, instead, demanding genuine relief from Washington.
Lindsey M. Burke is Senior Policy Analyst in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation.