Last year, the Obama Administration began making pacts with states that agreed to implement the White House’s preferred education policies, circumventing Congress to grant waivers to No Child Left Behind policy. Some states, like Texas and California, have refused to agree to such terms with the Department of Education and are instead demanding genuine relief from No Child Left Behind.
The Department of Education has responded with the announcement that it will begin offering separate policy terms to individual school districts—circumventing not just Congress, but also the authority of states to direct education. Education Week reported on an interview with Secretary Arne Duncan:
It’s clear that Mr. Duncan sees the potential of investing a half-billion dollars in districts, especially in states that are, as he calls them, “less functional” and haven’t won any other competitive grants.
Speaking at a recent conference, Under Secretary Michael Yudin stated that Duncan is “sympathetic to the plight of districts in states that don’t seem to be interested in a department waiver.” Education Week again reports:
Even as school districts across the country clamor for flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act, state education chiefs have a clear message for U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Any decision to seek a federal waiver should rest with them, not individual districts.
That message, delivered last week to Mr. Duncan at a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers, comes as the U.S. Department of Education is considering offering waivers to individual school districts in states that choose not to seek formal flexibility on many of the key provisions of the NCLB law.
Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright told the education secretary during a March 26 hourlong question-and-answer session that such a move would “undermine states”. Colorado schools Commissioner Robert Hammond said it would “bypass” state authority and result in “unintended consequences”.
This is a massive overreach by Washington into local school policy and a blatant disregard for states’ education decision-making authority. State education secretaries from Virginia, Colorado, and Pennsylvania all expressed fears over the consequences of such a proposal. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis noted:
To allow districts to go directly to the feds to get waivers…it would be difficult to see who is exactly responsible for accountability and reforms in their states…districts are creatures of state government.
Such a change would only further the “client mentality” described by Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall in a statement before the House Education and Workforce Committee:
The federal role in education has created an enormous compliance burden for states and local schools. Some of this can be quantified in terms of paperwork, time, and resources. But the cost of compliance should also be calculated in terms of the erosion of good governance in education. The proliferation of federal programs and the ever-increasing prescription of federally driven systemic reform distract school-level personnel and local and state leaders from serving their primary customers: students, parents, and taxpayers. The status quo engenders a client mentality as officials at the state and local level are consumed with calibrating the public education system to Washington’s wishes.
District waivers are the latest federal power grab by an Administration intent on further centralizing educational control in Washington. The waiver boondoggle could be avoided easily through congressionally generated proposals like A-PLUS that would allow states to completely opt out of No Child Left Behind, without all of the strings attached to President Obama’s waivers. Meanwhile, state leaders should reject these waivers, along with proposed district waivers, and demand genuine relief from Washington.
Evan Walter is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/internships-young-leaders/the-heritage-foundation-internship-program