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Inside Look: Administration Details How to Work Around Congress

A new article in CQ Weekly profiles the administration’s brazen reinterpretation of federal education law, affording an opportunity to examine the real effect of this agenda on our country’s K-12 education system.

Although Education Secretary Arne Duncan defends his decision to “move ahead on his own” to reinvent the nation’s classrooms, his actions are leaving states with more headaches and uncertainty than ever before while undermining real reform efforts underway in Congress.

Advancing the administration’s preferred education agenda

A key element of the administration’s backdoor education agenda is the decision to offer states waivers from provisions under elementary and secondary education law in exchange for adopting the administration’s preferred reforms. By agreeing to specific tenets of the administration’s desired education system, states become increasingly beholden to the whims of the secretary of education.

Instead of offering states real relief from onerous provisions under No Child Left Behind, the waivers are indicative of the administration’s unprecedented plan to dictate education policy from the nation’s capital.

In fact, according to CQ, “conditional waivers on a wholesale scale – a state gets a break if it pleases the Education Department – are unique. Once a department issues enough conditional waivers to a law, it has effectively changed it and replaced it.”

Never before has an administration tied waivers to mandates not authorized in existing law. Between 2002 and 2009, less than one percent of the 634 waivers granted by the secretary of education had specific requirements as a condition for receiving the waiver. Even then, states were not required to undertake any action outside of current law as a condition for obtaining the waiver.

By usurping current law, the administration is requiring states to undertake reforms deemed necessary by Washington bureaucrats, not what might be most effective at the state and local level. Ever-changing federal mandates create confusion and uncertainty for states and school districts striving to provide students with a quality education.

Undermining Congressional efforts to bring about lasting reform

The administration has repeatedly ignored – in fact, has undermined – efforts by the people’s elected representatives to reform No Child Left Behind, instead choosing to “[write] the book on how to get things done without waiting for Congress.” This would be a good argument – if only it were in line with the facts.

In reality, while the administration claims “we can’t wait” and offers its own “policy directives,” Congress is taking action. Since the beginning of the 112th Congress, the House Education and the Workforce Committee has shown its commitment to advancing meaningful legislative proposals to revamp the nation’s education system.

Long before the administration created a slogan to decry Congressional inaction, Congressional Republicans were diligently working to improve K-12 education.

The committee recently approved two pieces of legislation that will overhaul and improve elementary and secondary education law. Instead of giving states increased “freedom” to enact the administration’s preferred reforms, the Student Success Act (H.R. 3989) and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act (H.R. 3990) will return decision-making authority back to the state and local education officials who understand the needs of their schools and students. And last fall, the House of Representatives approved the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 2218) with bipartisan support.

This alone is more than Democrats can boast after four years controlling the House. Even though No Child Left Behind came due for reauthorization in 2007, Democrats failed to advance any legislation to rewrite the law.

A great job if you can get it

Needless to say, the administration continues to perfect its talent for working around Congress. New America Foundation education expert Jennifer Cohen aptly describes the secretary of education’s seemingly natural ability to legislate from the executive branch, saying, “He’s enjoyed it.”

The secretary of education has enjoyed running the nation’s schools and stretching the limit of the law to incorporate his whims. Who wouldn’t enjoy this job?