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Despite Promises of State and Local Control, Waivers Scheme Increases Federal Role in Education

After a shrouded review process and months of closed-door debate, the administration last week announced 10 states will receive waivers from certain requirements under No Child Left Behind.

With this action, the administration has officially shunned working with Congress to improve federal education law in favor of a scheme that merely exchanges a few of No Child Left Behind’s most onerous mandates for new requirements dictated by the Department of Education.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the waivers plan, claiming, “Rather than dictating educational decisions from Washington, we want state and local educators to decide how to best meet the individual needs of students.” But when the waivers come bundled with new federal requirements, who is really deciding what students need?

Former Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok isn’t fooled by the administration’s rhetoric. “It's one thing to issue a waiver, it's another thing to issue what I would call conditional waiver,” Hickok said.

Indeed, the secretary of education has the authority to issue waivers from federal education law. However, House Education and the Workforce Committee Republicans have repeatedly questioned the legality of tying these waivers to the education policies preferred by the administration. A 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service indicates such conditional waivers could be subject to legal challenge.

In a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said, “Leaders of all political persuasions agree the status quo is unacceptable. Secretary [of Education] Arne Duncan… acknowledges that No Child Left Behind has significant flaws… but rather than work with us to get it changed, he and the president have decided to issue waivers in exchange for states adopting the policies he wants them to have… The idea that Congress is an impediment to be bypassed I find very troubling in many ways.”

The skepticism and uncertainty surrounding the waivers scheme isn’t just among leaders in Washington. Texas Education Agency official Debbie Ratcliffe understands the administration’s plan could make states more beholden to the Department of Education. "We'd love to get the flexibility… but we're worried about the strings attached [to a waiver],” Ms. Ratcliffe told the Associated Press. “We prefer state control."

Ms. Ratcliffe has good reason to be worried about the strings attached to waivers. After the first round of states submitted their applications, the Department of Education sent extensive letters to state officials demanding they adopt the administration’s preferred education reforms in order to obtain a waiver. According to Thomas B. Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Michael Petrilli, these letters “document that federal micromanagement is still the order of the day.”

Our children deserve a better education law, one that will provide lasting relief to superintendents, principals, and teachers struggling under the weight of No Child Left Behind’s mandates, and give state and local officials true flexibility to design accountability systems that best meet student needs.

To restore state and local education control, committee Republicans recently introduced the Student Success Act (H.R. 3989) and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act (H.R. 3990). The legislation will replace No Child Left Behind’s broken accountability provisions (known as Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP) with state accountability systems, roll back antiquated federal teacher mandates in favor of locally developed teacher evaluations, and grant state and local leaders enhanced flexibility in the use of federal funds.

Most importantly, the legislation will shrink the federal intrusion in classrooms and allow states and school districts to cut ties with No Child Left Behind – once and for all.

Instead of a conditional plan that keeps K-12 education firmly in the hands of Washington bureaucrats, the administration should work with committee Republicans to advance the smart policies included in the Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act.

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