No Child Left Behind (NCLB) may be regulatory hell for school leaders—as a reported 7 million man hours of paperwork each year to comply suggests—but “regulatory purgatory” through a strings-attached waiver process is hardly better.
That’s how Senator Pat Roberts (R–KS) referred to the Obama Administration’s strings-attached waiver process in a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing last Thursday.
In 2011, the Obama Administration began offering waivers to states from some of the onerous provisions of NCLB. Last week, the HELP Committee held a hearing examining the impact those waivers have had on states. Forty-four states and Washington, D.C., have applied for a waiver to date; 34 and D.C. have been awarded a waiver, leaving 10 waiting in the wings for approval of their waiver applications and 6 not applying.
The strings associated with the waivers are significant, and include states agreeing to adopt “standards that are common to a significant number of states” in order to be competitive for a waiver. In the case of all but one state—Virginia—that has meant adopting the only common standards option available: the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
During the hearing, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated that the Administration has tried to support states that are raising standards through the waiver process, and that “46 states have done so”—a clear reference to the 46 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards.
Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) argued that the Secretary of Education’s waiver authority has gone much further than the waiver authority included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was passed in 1994. Alexander called the waivers “Washington’s version of the old children’s game ‘Mother, May I?’”—if you don’t to the right thing, you’re out of the game.
“The problem,” Alexander continued, “is that more and more decisions are being made in Washington about whether schools and teachers are failing.”
Secretary Duncan argued that the Department of Education had begun offering waivers because of “congressional lack of action.”
Congressional inaction (per the Department of Education’s arbitrary timeline) on NCLB reauthorization does not mean that the Administration is somehow empowered to begin policymaking from the White House through conditions-based waivers.
Governors and superintendents need genuine relief from Washington education mandates, and should be enabled to completely opt-out of NCLB without the types of conditions attached to the waivers. Legislative proposals like the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act do just that, and would give state and local leaders the freedom to focus dollars and decision making on their most pressing education priorities.
NCLB waivers represent a troubling pact with Washington that will end up further centralizing education policy. The waivers pose serious legal questions, circumvent the normal legislative process, significantly grow federal intervention in local school policy, and fail to offer genuine relief to states suffering from Washington mandates and red tape. Governors and state education leaders should reject these waivers and demand genuine relief from federal intervention, including the ability to completely opt out of NCLB.