Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced on Monday that he may offer states relief from No Child Left Behind requirements if the law is not revised by Congress this year. “As it currently exists, NCLB is creating a slow-motion train wreck for children, parents and teachers,” Duncan noted. “For this reason, our administration will develop a plan that trades regulatory flexibility for reform.”
Duncan’s plan—or announcement of considering a plan—is to grant states or some districts the ability to forego implementing some parts of the law, especially those requirements states consider particularly onerous. In return, states or districts would have to agree to implement other kinds of reforms that the department favors. So far the Department of Education has been quiet on what waivers or reforms might entail, which hasn’t stopped people from guessing that the department may change what improvement strategies low-performing schools must implement or what annual performance targets schools must hit.
The fact that none of the details of the proposal have been released has not stopped pundits from criticizing it. One claimed Duncan’s efforts were unconstitutional and “back-door legislating.” Another simply called him “tone deaf.” But these comments overstate the facts—and ignore the realities of Duncan’s proposal, or lack thereof. We could all benefit from taking a wait-and-see approach while continuing to focus on fixing NCLB through legislation.
For one, the secretary made clear that the best approach to helping states and districts deal with NCLB is to fix it—for all states, not just those who ask for relief. I couldn’t agree more. So does Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. He responded to Duncan’s announcement saying, “The best way to fix the problems in existing law is to pass a better one.”
Congress can and should retool NCLB in order to improve outcomes for students, as the Center for American Progress outlined in a new report. There are plenty of things in the law that don’t make sense, from mandating school improvement strategies that don’t always work to focusing on teacher qualifications that fail to ensure educators are effective in the classroom. And so Congress should act swiftly so that the secretary’s remarks turn out to be, well, just remarks.
But one should not be blind to the political difficulties in overhauling a complex law like NCLB. And if a breakdown occurs, some form of relief-for-reform might provide states needed flexibility without letting them off the hook. Walking that tightrope is difficult, and the Department of Education should keep a few things in mind if it goes down that road.
First, the secretary should grant waivers, not regulatory relief. The secretary already has authority to waive some requirements in current law, and this has the benefit of being less permanent than changes to regulations. Plus, waivers are granted on a case-by-case basis, while regulatory changes would apply to all states. The secretary could smartly grant flexibility on key issues like intervention strategies while holding states’ feet to the fire for turning around low-performing schools, improving teacher effectiveness, and ensuring low-income and minority students have equal access to great teachers.
The secretary should also not give up on accountability. The economic and social costs of a poor education are high, and the federal government should continue to hold all schools accountable for the achievement of all students. The states should also continue to set annual goals for improvement and closing achievement gaps, or students will continue to suffer in low-performing schools.
Finally, the secretary should be transparent. Under the law, the secretary can grant waivers, and he isn’t required to tell the public much about what he decides or how he decides it. That will not be enough. If the department decides to give waivers, they should be as open as possible, and they should outline principles or priorities for granting waivers, post state applications online, and provide detailed information on what decisions are made and why.
Washington types like me love to play the guessing game. Will Duncan’s remarks preempt reauthorization or give it new impetus? Will the department cave to requests to weaken accountability, or will it use waivers to force reform on uncooperative states? Prognosticating is interesting, but absent details from the department, it is premature. And while we all wait and see, we shouldn’t lose sight of the real need within the schools to fix NCLB through legislation so that all states, all schools, and most importantly all students benefit.
Cynthia G. Brown is Vice President for Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.