Arnius Duncanus?

Poor Arne. Nobody seems to like his warning to Congress that if it doesn’t get cracking on NCLB reauthorization he will take matters into his own hands via regulations. I couldn’t help but think of Commodus, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator, who frequently expressed frustration with the Roman Senate’s inaction. (To be clear, that’s where the parallels end. Phoenix’s character was WEIRD; Duncan, not so much.)

Here’s my take. First, Arne Duncan deserves credit for doing something on ESEA beyond issuing statements and press releases that amount to “please, please, pretty please, with sugar on top!” Congress is dithering and no amount of pressure—Presidential or otherwise—has made a difference to date. The Republicans in the House at least have some reasonable excuses—with all those new members still getting up to speed, and the tricky politics of the Tea Party. But Senator Harkin should be ashamed (though he doesn’t appear to be); Easter is long past and still we have no bill from his committee. Maybe this threat will finally be the kick in the pants he needs to get his act together.

Second, my friend Rick Hess is right that Duncan’s plans to tie regulatory relief to new requirements indicates an incredible amount of tone-deafness, not to mention Constitutional ignorance. Yes, under NCLB’s waiver authority, the Secretary has a lot of room to maneuver in terms of letting states and districts escape from onerous parts of the law. But what provision gives the Department of Education the power to make its supplicants agree to Race to the Top-like mandates in return? As a spokeswoman for the top Republican on the House education committee told Education Week: “Chairman Kline remains concerned about any initiative that would allow the secretary to pick winners and losers in the nation’s education system.” Bingo.

So what was Team Duncan thinking? Here’s a hint; consider this quote (again from Ed Week) from NCLB-uber-advocate Kati Haycock:

While we believe targeted waivers in exchange for real movement on those issues is a good thing, regulatory relief would fit squarely in the ‘cop-out’ category.

That’s right, if all you do is try to fix the most onerous parts of NCLB, but don’t “move the ball down the field” in terms of reform, you are copping out.

I prefer another line of reasoning: If we reformers want to save the larger project of school reform, we need to fix NCLB now before the backlash gets even worse.

Here’s my advice to Duncan et al: Go ahead with a package of regulations that would provide blanket waivers of the worst parts of the law. Of course there will be parameters—states would still have to have accountability systems, for example. The only question is how different they could be from NCLB’s vision. But don’t try to tie this stuff to new, made-up mandates. That will only get NCLB implementation embroiled in a lawsuit (which you’ll lose) and acrimonious charges of imperialism (which will be well-founded). And of course, keep your eyes on the Senate.

—Mike Petrilli

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