The Corner

The one and only.

Obama’s Ill-advised NCLB Waivers


Later today, President Obama will deliver a speech in which he will detail the conditions that will be attached to No Child Left Behind waivers being offered to states by the Department of Education. At issue is NCLB’s most recent reauthorization in 2001, which significantly expanded Washington’s role in education by triggering a ticking clock on states. By 2014, all children must be proficient in reading and math while showing Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward that goal.

States, feeling the federal heat from the law’s 2014 proficiency requirement, will certainly welcome some relief from the onerous provisions of the nation’s most far-reaching education law.

But any temporary relief they feel will be overwhelmed, down the road, by the increase in Washington’s authority over state and local education decisions, and the subsequent red tape that’s sure to follow. Temporary relief will be quickly followed by a new set of debilitating federal shackles.

The Obama administration is using the waivers to push its policy preferences on states. Unhappy with the pace at which Congress is undertaking the reauthorization of the 600-page No Child Left Behind law (President Obama wanted the law reauthorized before the start of this school year), the administration is dangling waivers in front of states thirsting for regulatory relief in exchange for state agreement to adopt the administration’s preferred education reforms.

Their blueprint for revamping NCLB didn’t make its way through Congress via the normal legislative process, so the administration is attempting to push it through via executive fiat. That this might constitute an overreach on their part doesn’t seem to concern Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who, the Washington Post reports, said he feels “compelled to do this.” The Post quotes Duncan as saying, “My absolute preference is for Congress to fix it for the entire country. But there’s a level of dysfunction in Congress that’s paralyzing.”

A quick reauthorization of No Child Left Behind might be Duncan’s preference, but the preference of an agency head should not be used to dictate policy.

There’s a fundamental reason reauthorization is moving slowly. While both sides of the aisle agree that No Child Left Behind is broken, the Obama administration does not believe that the federal role in education is fundamentally flawed. So the administration has been pushing for a ninth reauthorization of the law, while conservatives in Congress are offering alternatives, which include proposals to completely opt-out of the programs under NCLB.

But there are other problems with the waiver approach, too. These waivers will go beyond what was the existing overreach of a ticking proficiency clock on states; the waivers lay the groundwork for the federal government becoming involved in the content taught in local schools.

#more# The conditions will include reference to states having “college-and-career-ready” standards. An innocuous sounding phrase, “college-and-career-ready” is the adopted language of national-standards proponents and is used by the Obama administration in press releases, speeches, their NCLB rewrite proposal, and Race to the Top requirements as part of their national-standards push (another major federal overreach).

 On Wednesday, Jay P. Greene, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, testified before the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on K–12 education, and noted the dangers of the national-standards push. Greene said there’s a “large effort” underway to implement national standards, which began with Race to the Top.

The push for national standards, he said, is based in the belief that outcomes will improve if standards are coordinated at the national level. Greene argued that exactly the opposite is true: “When we have choice and competition among different sets of standards, curricula, and assessments, they tend to improve in quality to better suit student needs and result in better outcomes.”

But conservatives are on the case. Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to Secretary Duncan a week ago urging him to obey the Constitution when it comes to the Department’s push for national standards.

Regardless of the content of the waiver conditions, attaching conditions that constitute policy changes represents the administration pushing their policy preferences on states by circumventing normal legislative procedure. States should be wary of the long-term handcuffs that follow any short-term waiver relief. And the administration should be wary of, once again, stepping outside the boundaries of their authority. The American people are taking note.

— Lindsey M. Burke is Senior Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation,