The Unilateral Repeal of NCLB and the 2012 Election

The Obama administration’s new waiver plan (officially here, and covered extensively here, here, and here—and elsewhere, I’m sure) doesn’t officially repeal the No Child Left Behind Act, but it is tantamount to making large-scale amendments to it. Which it does unilaterally, without even a thumbs-up from Congress.

Though the specific conditions that the White House and Secretary Duncan are attaching to statewide “flexibility waivers” are consistent with the Administration’s long-standing “blueprint” for reauthorizing NCLB, and also happen to be conditions that I think generally have merit, they amount to changing the law, not just waiving it. This raises Constitutional as well as statutory issues—though the administration’s response, not surprisingly or implausibly, is that “if a do-nothing Congress won’t act to solve problems, we’ll solve them ourselves as best we can.”

Yet the changes themselves—at least their timing and high-profile release—are motivated at least as much by election-year political considerations as by policy. This is not the first example, and surely won’t be the last, of appealing to key constituencies by undoing, suspending, or waiving government practices that they find onerous and unpleasant. Consider the non-deportation of illegal aliens who haven’t committed crimes. Hispanic (and other immigrant) voters will surely applaud this move and likely thank the administration in November 2012.

Today’s announcements mean that teachers and parents (and school-board members and administrators) will also breathe a sigh of relief at the suggestion that the President and his education secretary are taking the heavy hand of unrealistic achievement targets, school labels, and unwanted accountability burdens off their frail shoulders.

And they’ll be partly right, for the promised waivers, once issued, really do ease the most painful parts of NCLB—provisions that analysts and critics (ourselves included) have pointed to for a very long time as needing revision.

But they’ll be only partly right. For the administration is also imposing its own preconditions on states for waiver eligibility. Three in particular, all of which are wrenching and controversial in their own right, and at least one of which could result in an election-year firestorm. Teachers and principals will be concerned about the obligation of states to develop evaluation systems for them that incorporate measures of student progress. A variety of groups will be upset over the plan to impose “rigorous interventions to turn schools around” only on a small number of really low-performing schools and let merely-mediocre schools avoid the turnaround lash.

The greatest potential for political controversy, however, is the requirement that states seeking waivers “have already adopted college- and career-ready standards” in math and English language arts, which is preceded (in the White House document) by reference to the Common Core State Standards Initiative. This will surely be viewed by Common Core skeptics as entangling Title I with the heretofore state-driven initiative and creating new federal incentives for states to embrace those standards. I happen to think the Common Core standards are generally worth embracing, but I also understand that much of what’s good about them is their separateness from Uncle Sam. That distance is now disappearing.

One who might notice is the governor of Texas, who detests everything about the Common Core and has kept his state out of it—and who just happens to be Barack Obama’s likeliest opponent in the 2012 election.

—Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This post also appears on Flypaper.

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