Superintendent Duncan Yanks Washington’s Waiver

Showing the taste for power that has led Sen. Lamar Alexander to accuse him of thinking he runs a national school board, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week yanked Washington state’s “waiver” from the No Child Left Behind Act. In his letter, Duncan expressed his disappointment in the failure of Washington state’s legislature to heed his instruction “to put in place teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that take into account information on student learning growth based on high-quality college- and career-ready (CCR) state assessments as a significant factor in determining teacher and principal performance levels.” This was the first time Duncan had pulled a state’s waiver. For a detailed account of all the ins and outs of the decision, check out the stellar account that Politics K-12 offers here.  For now, four thoughts:

One, the incident shows how massively the Obama administration has extended the US Department of Education’s reach. Secretary Duncan is now punishing Washington state and re-imposing provisions of a law that he has termed “broken,” because its legislature failed to heed his mandate governing teacher and principal evaluation–a mandate that has no grounding in statute. Talk about your worrisome precedents.

Two, this decision shows how capricious the whole waiver process has been. Duncan’s letter acknowledges that he extended Washington’s waiver despite it having violated its pledge. It’s hard to understand why it was okay to grant a reprieve last time and not this time.

Three, it’s hard to fathom why anyone would imagine it appropriate or desirable for the Secretary of Education to require states to adopt particular teacher and administrator evaluation policies, especially at this time. Aside from the absence of any legislative basis for his doing so, there is no evidentiary basis he can point to demonstrate the merits of his preferred model. Meanwhile, his actions are fueling backlash. And, he is insisting on linking assessment results to evaluation at the precise time Washington state is adopting new assessments, which seems a recipe for trouble.

Fourth, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that every one of the 40-odd states with a waiver is in violation of at least some portion of it. So it’s troubling to see the Secretary freely pick and choose which violations are “okay,” which call for probation, and which are so severe he’ll yank a state’s waiver and force them to re-impose provisions of a law he’s termed broken.  In this case, his anger seems to be directed at the legislature for having failed to heed his directive. There are at least two huge problems with that. One, in our system of government, executive branch officials are not empowered to give marching orders to duly elected legislators. Two, absent statutory authority, federal officials are not supposed to give marching orders to state officials.

Unfortunately, this has all become strangely routine for a Department that seems increasingly untethered from the inconvenient strictures of statute and unbothered by the niceties of lawmaking.

-Frederick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College