waiver by neverfeltbetter,

The Education Department plans to grant waivers for the No Child Left Behind law to states and school districts that “embrace reform.” This bypasses Congressional reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, and allows states and districts to get out from under the onerous burdens of the law, which has a deadline for 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2013-14, and which would close down schools that did not comply.

States can avoid the No Child Left Behind law’s 2014 deadline for achieving 100 percent proficiency on standardized state reading and math exams if they sign off on yet-unspecified administration “reforms,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes said Aug. 5 in a press briefing.

Saying Congress has failed to take action to fix the nine- year-old law, the U.S. Education Department will offer states waivers as soon as this school year. Duncan opposes the legislation’s focus on holding schools accountable only through testing proficiency, which he has said encourages dumbed-down standards. About 80 percent of U.S. schools risk being labeled failing if the law isn’t changed.

There are a couple things here. First of all, this is the new reaction to Washington gridlock – just going around the legislative process and imposing reforms at the executive agency level. Rather than legislation on the budget, there’s a Catfood Commission II. Rather than an emission reduction law, the EPA imposes standards. There’s nothing good about this from a transparency level and it raises some legal questions, but as a least-worst alternative to total paralysis, it may be preferable. Notably, this is the kind of step that the Obama Administration has not really taken with respect to the economy.

But the caveat to that least-worst construction is that there’s a second part of this, and it’s the “reforms” that states would have to promise in exchange for getting the waiver. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has not really been specific on what those reforms would entail, but on a conference call today, he alluded to them. He used some buzzwords like “higher standards” and “new and improved accountability systems,” and talked about states being “thoughtful around educator effectiveness” and “courageously tackling lowest performing schools.” I think you can read between the lines here. Essentially, the Administration will demand exactly the same kind of reforms they did in the Race to the Top grants. Only this time, instead of a reward for states that do change their education systems, there will be a punishment if they don’t. “Those states who don’t comply will continue to operate under No Child Left Behind,” said White House domestic policy advisor Melody Barnes on the same conference call today.

I think the White House is pretty pleased with this arrangement. Maybe they’d rather a federal mandate through legislation. But they wouldn’t get as free a hand to write it then. Here, they can lay down a set of standards – which would almost definitely include teacher evaluations based on student performance, merit pay, making it easier to fire teachers, and the other “reformer” techniques we are familiar with – and punish any state who doesn’t adhere to them. No Child Left Behind is “an impediment” to education reform, according to Duncan. Any state that doesn’t follow his agenda will have the impediment stay right in place, an impediment that almost every state says they cannot meet.

Duncan plans to unveil the reforms needed to acquire a waiver in September.

David Dayen

David Dayen