With lawmakers on both sides of the ideological divide unable to come together on terms for a re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (most recently renamed “No Child Left Behind” in 2001) State Education Departments began to apply in earnest to Sec. Duncan for exemptions from the school rating and student achievements benchmarks written into the language of NCLB. States have expressed their fear that schools (and students) will be unfairly labeled as failing – some states facing as much as 85% of their school districts labeled as “in need of improvement”. On top of that, not meeting those benchmarks will carry with them penalties that could hold up badly needed federal funding for local school districts already in jeopardy due to spending cuts agreed upon when they sought ways to close local and state-wide deficits.
Last week the White House responded to their frustrations with an announcement that the US Department of Education will be granting waivers to those seeking relief – but with the condition that states adopt an alternative set of accountability and reform measures like approved college-ready programs and teacher effectiveness matrixes. These measures are being received with mixed reviews by elected officials and education administrators however Duncan says that he was forced to act because Congress did not this year (and because of partisan paralysis probably not till after the 2012 elections)
The first question is whether states will bite? Even before Duncan announced the waiver program, several states like Idaho, South Dakota and Montana had discussed refusing to comply outright regardless of the consequences so in the end would Duncan have the political capital to hold the line and refuse them federal funding if he chooses to? If this is just a situation being used to insert parts of the White House’s Blueprint plan for education, will adding them now before it has a chance to be discussed and filtered through Congress create any obstacles when the modified version is implemented later as law? Another legal quagmire is to what extent Duncan has the power to replace one set of standards, made binding by law, with another set of standards being pushed by the administration and like-minded advocates.
Finally – Is this what President Obama can look forward to as his main instrument for improving education over the next year as his colleagues in the legislative branch refuse to put politics before finding a middle ground on best practices for learning? Whether it’s the debt-limit or education reform having to invoke amendments or using backdoor strategies for policymaking is not a sustainable way of running government. But given our limited options, we just have to wait and see to what extent the Duncan’s waivers will give states the flexibility they need to realize their own roadmap to improving schools and whether or not this issue becomes of concern enough to be debated in the halls of Congress any time in the near future.
video below is a recording of Sec. Duncan’s testimony regarding the White House’s Education Blueprint for America