Arne Scorns Iowa: Political Courage or Political Suicide?

With barely four months to go until Election Day, we are well within the “zone”—that time period in which every single Administration decision is made through the prism of presidential politics. Particularly in swing states, not a grant gets issued, not a speech gets uttered without someone in the White House weighing its potential electoral impact.

So I was amazed, befuddled, dumbstruck, bemused (choose your own adjective) to learn that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has rejected a request from Iowa for flexibility under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. What political courage! What political suicide! Did Duncan and the White House politicos not understand that he’s handing Mitt Romney a handy campaign issue in up-for-grabs Iowa?

What’s most remarkable is the reason the Administration is turning down Iowa’s waiver request: Because the state legislature refuses to enact a statewide teacher evaluation plan. As you may recall, such evaluations were one of the mandates (er, conditions) placed on states that want flexibility from ESEA’s broken accountability requirements. And as many of us have argued, such conditions are patently illegal. There’s nothing in the ESEA that indicates that the Secretary has the authority to demand such conditions be met in order for waiver requests to be approved.

Iowa’s state superintendent, Jason Glass, was discouraged but polite as he took his marbles and went home—putting the blame on Iowa’s state legislators. “We’ve been negotiating with the U.S. Department of Education to try to find a way through this. It’s just not possible. We are very disappointed that our state is [still] under the onerous shame and blame policies of NCLB for another year.”

Republican Governor Terry Branstad blamed his own legislators, too, saying in a statement that “Responsibility for the denial of this request lies squarely at the feet of the Iowa Legislature, which did too little to improve our schools despite repeated warnings. The education reform plan Lt. Gov. (Kim) Reynolds and I proposed would have ensured a waiver from the onerous federal No Child Left Behind law.”

Don’t be shocked, however, if Branstad, who was just named co-chairman of Romney’s Iowa campaign, changes his tune, and starts to point at least one finger at the President. I wouldn’t be surprised if he calls for a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, forcing it to defend its decision and its questionable conditions.

As for Governor Romney, expect him to talk up this issue the next time he’s in the Hawkeye State, as yet another example of executive overreach and federal micromanagement. Iowans love their schools and their teachers; it’s not going to be hard to paint this as a classic case of Washington bureaucrats gone wild.

Who said that education wouldn’t play a role in the election?

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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