The White House announced details today of its long-signaled intent to use waivers to states to sidestep the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and to advance its own education agenda. States that adopt “college- and career-ready standards” (a code phrase for the national learning standards promoted by the administration), teacher and principal evaluation systems based on student test scores, and turn-around strategies for the lowest performing schools will be allowed to design and implement their own accountability systems and will have greater flexibility in how they spend federal dollars.
The political calculus is straightforward. States and school districts are chaffing under the accountability provisions of NCLB, in large part because the law took what in the ordinary course of federal action would have been an aspiration goal (“every child proficient in reading and math by 2014”) and turned it into an actual requirement, with teeth. States are no where close to getting there, and having exhausted the remedies that can be derived from gaming the law, they are eager for relief from Washington. The administration, no longer having billions in stimulus funds with which to bribe states to adopt its education policies, is substituting relief from the requirements of law as its carrot. It expects Congressional leaders, who are none too happy with this usurpation of their authority, to be relatively powerless to act because doing so would involve crossing swords with their state governors and education chiefs, most of whom will want the waivers.
But this is a dangerous and internally conflicted path for the administration to go down. It is dangerous because it takes boilerplate secretarial waiver authority, present in almost all major legislation and intended to allow an administration, with informal congressional approval, to tweak laws to make them fit realities on the ground, and turns it into a virtually limitless authority for the executive branch to substitute its preferred policies for the law of the land. Imagine the person as president you could least imagine being suited to that position armed with this precedent.
It is internally conflicted because it provides further leverage for states to adopt common national standards—which the administration touts as essential to comparability between states—but gives away common accountability in exchange. Standards and accountability go together like Sonny and Cher. Separate them and, well you know what happens. So we’re to have the same college- and career-ready standards for what children should learn in Minnesota and Mississippi, but different definitions of what schools and teachers are to be held accountable for accomplishing against those standards? Where does that get us? It is like the federal government requiring that car manufacturers meet common standards for fuel efficiency but allowing each automobile maker to have its own definition of miles per gallon.
The federal role in K-12 education is not working nearly as well as is needed. It must be seriously rethought and restructured. Congress is about this work. The administration can address the pressing issue of too many schools being identified as in need of improvement by such simple means as setting back the proficiency deadline from 2014 to 2016, or capping the percentage of schools within a state that are subject to the accountability provisions of NCLB. It would surely get the nod from Congressional committees for pursuing such temporary and practical fixes. In contrast, gutting NCLB and setting its own policy direction using the waiver authority is misguided, confused, and will prove to be counterproductive.