Arne Duncan’s NCLB Overreach

by The Editors

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced that he will offer a waiver to the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to any state that wants one — so long as the state agrees to enact the Obama administration’s preferred education reforms.

This is an overreach. No Child Left Behind gives the secretary a broad authority to grant waivers, but Duncan is essentially using that authority to create a whole new policy. If the administration wants to encourage states to adopt specific reforms that are not prescribed in existing law, it should encourage Congress to pass legislation to that effect, not just make the decision itself. This move is of a piece with the administration’s other attempts to legislate by fiat, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

But the deeper problem here is NCLB itself — the ridiculous assumptions of which nearly justify Duncan’s actions. The 2001 law mandates that all American schoolchildren be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014; whenever a school fails to make adequate progress toward that goal, it runs a risk of losing federal funding. Needless to say, thanks to a wide variety of factors, not all children are capable of becoming academically proficient — so the law punishes schools for failing to do the impossible.

The drafters of the legislation, and President Bush, who signed it, were perfectly aware that they were making unreasonable demands. We know this because they built escape routes into the law. In addition to giving the secretary of education the right to waive the requirements, NCLB allowed each state to define “proficient” however it wanted. Not surprisingly, massive fraud resulted: To simulate improvement, states made their “proficiency” tests progressively easier. In many states, student scores improved on NCLB tests, but not on other standardized measures of achievement.

However, there are limits to states’ ability and willingness to fudge the data, and the 2014 deadline — at which point tests will have to be so easy that all students pass them — is approaching. It’s clear that a change is needed, and Congress has thus far failed to pass new legislation.

If the federal government got out of education entirely, we wouldn’t face problems such as this one. But at the very least, legislators should take the reins back from the administration — and base their funding requirements on plausible assumptions this time.