Secretary Duncan’s plan to circumvent Congress

Lindsey Burke Education Policy Analyst, Heritage Foundation
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Education Secretary Arne Duncan is teaching students a lesson: how to get your way no matter what the rules are.

Congressional talks are breaking down over No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and the Obama administration’s arbitrary back-to-school timeline for reauthorizing the law is slipping away. So Duncan is preparing to circumvent Congress by granting states waivers to get out from under some of NCLB’s mandates.

But there’s a catch: to receive a waiver, states must agree to adopt the administration’s education policies. Thus Duncan could ensure that the education reforms he and the president want are implemented in America’s schools, with or without a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

Secretary Duncan indicated in a recent call to reporters that waivers — the administration’s NCLB “plan B” — are under serious consideration.

“The worst-case scenario is that Congress does nothing, and we do nothing,” Duncan told reporters. But there is actually something worse than doing nothing: Duncan’s plan to abrogate the Constitution and push states to adopt reforms that are not in the best interests of students.

According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress history assessment, just 24 percent of high school seniors are proficient in civics; just 12 percent are proficient in history. So they might not know that the executive branch can’t exert its will on Congress by issuing policy ultimatums, but Secretary Duncan certainly should.

The administration has used carrots before to enact its brand of education “reform.” For states to have access to the more than $4 billion in federal funding doled out through Race to the Top, states had to agree to adopt national education standards and tests.

Indeed, the past year has been full of obfuscations, as the Obama administration has tried to coerce states to adopt national standards while simultaneously maintaining the ruse that the effort is voluntary.

Concern grew when President Obama indicated that access to federal Title I dollars for low-income schools would be contingent upon adoption of national standards — a policy that, unlike Race to the Top, would make the standards anything but voluntary. In remarks to the National Governors Association in February 2010, Obama noted that “as a condition of receiving access to Title I funds, we will ask all states to put in place a plan to adopt and certify standards that are college and career-ready in reading and math.”

Last month during remarks to the National Center on Education and the Economy, Secretary Duncan stated that “We [the Department of Education] have not and will not prescribe a national curriculum. I want to repeat that” — a statement which Education Week said prompted laughter from the audience.

But even if the strings-attached waivers wouldn’t create a back-door mechanism for the administration to implement its education reform agenda without Congressional approval — and they will — waivers for the failed No Child Left Behind law are not a long-term solution.

A better solution is to provide immediate relief and a long-term solution to reforming education. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), for example, has introduced a bill to eliminate 43 ineffective and duplicative programs under NCLB to better target resources to those students most in need. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is expected to put forward a proposal soon to provide states with flexibility over how the spend their federal education dollars.

Then there’s the A-PLUS proposal, which would allow states to exercise their Tenth Amendment rights and opt out of the many programs under NCLB and direct their education dollars in a way that best meets student needs. Together, the A-PLUS approach and measures to consolidate and eliminate ineffective programs would send dollars and decision-making back to state and local leaders.

“President Obama has called for lawmakers to rewrite No Child Left Behind by the start of the new school year,” writes Fawn Johnson in National Journal. “Now he’s giving them the second warning before sending them to the principal’s office: Do your job or we’ll do it for you.”

The administration could set a far better example by respecting the Constitution and parents. It’s time for education reform that is accountable to parents and other taxpayers — not bureaucrats in Washington.

Lindsey M. Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.