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Duncan Wants to Use NCLB Sanctions to Force More Education Reform Measures

Perceptive readers will note that I’m not the biggest fan of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and his pursuit of what I consider to be wrong-headed education reform policies. But one thing he has always wanted to do is to fix the No Child Left Behind law so that a large percentage of the nation’s schools aren’t seen as failing under the legislation by 2014. This was thought to require an act of Congress, to reauthorize the law and change the standards. But Congress is, well, Congress. And they’re not moving so fast. So Duncan may take matters into his own hands, taking a page from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and using one of those ever-present waivers.

Unless Congress acts by this fall to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the main federal law on public education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan signaled that he would use his executive authority to free states from the law’s centerpiece requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

The Obama administration has been facing a mounting clamor from state school officials to waive substantial parts of the law, which President Bush signed in 2002, especially its requirement that states bring 100 percent of students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014 or else face sanctions. In March, Mr. Duncan predicted that the law would classify 80,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools as failing this fall unless it was amended.

But his efforts to address the problem have gained little traction on Capitol Hill, where several attempts since 2007 to rewrite the sprawling school accountability law have failed.

“We’re not going to sit here and do nothing,” Mr. Duncan told reporters on Friday in a conference call that was embargoed until midnight Saturday. “Our first priority is to have Congress rewrite the law. If that doesn’t get done, we have the obligation to provide relief in exchange for reform.”

We can’t have most of the nation’s schools sanctioned for failing to meet unrealistic goals (and unfunded ones, I might add). But I’m extremely wary of “relief in exchange for reform.” This just sounds like another version of Race to the Top, only a bit worse. In Race to the Top, schools competed for stimulus funds by enacting a spate of reform measures. There was a carrot for those who reformed, and even if the school didn’t win the competition, they weren’t actively harmed. But here, only schools which “reformed” would avoid sanctions. So this changes the dynamic from a carrot to a stick.

John Kline (R-MN), the chair of the House committee overseeing education, said through a spokesman that he “remains concerned about any initiative that would allow the secretary to pick winners and losers.” In my view, there’s ample reason for that concern. The White House has a narrowcast education agenda that is the subject of not a little controversy, and they now want to use the threat of sanctions to implement it.

It could be that the White House just wants to use this threat of going around Congress to spur them to reauthorize the law. But this Congress isn’t built to pass anything of this size and scope, even if John Boehner did have a role in creating No Child Left Behind and has expressed an interest in reforming it. This is one of those common ground issues, at least between the White House and Republicans, but anyone in the GOP doing business with Obama is seen as an abomination.

The saddest part of this is that we have a federal government where, just to function, the executive has incentive to go around the legislative branch and implement unilateral policies. This is a symptom of broken government as much as it is a consolidation of power.

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David Dayen

David Dayen