USED, Indiana’s ESEA Waiver, and an Unexpected Federalism Paradox

On the surface, the story of the US Department of Education’s recent letter to Indiana about its ESEA-waiver noncompliance writes itself. According to the feds, the Hoosier state promised a bunch of stuff, isn’t delivering, and deserves to be called into the principal’s office.

But I encourage you to read the letter—my gut tells me this is the K–12-policy version of a Rorschach test.

In short, the Department has placed conditions on IN’s flexibility request and is requiring the state to submit a plan for how it will implement high-quality standards and assessments in the next school year.

On the first score, ED determined the state hadn’t implemented sufficient interventions for troubled schools and wasn’t adequately monitoring implementation of content standards and educator evaluations.

On the second, ED is seriously holding IN’s feet to the fire regarding its recent legislative action related to Common Core and PARCC. Both were part of the state’s waiver request, and now both have been put aside via state law. Given this, Uncle Sam is demanding a new plan for how the state intends to meet the standards-and-assessments conditions of ESEA flexibility.

I bet lots of folks will read ED’s letter, and think, “Hooray! The Department is serious about its new accountability rules!” Indeed, the ESEA waiver application had clear requirements, and the state made promises, got the flexibility, isn’t meeting its obligations, and is now being held accountable. (Fans of Common Core and PARCC specifically, and tough standards and assessments generally are probably particularly gratified.)

But there are probably lots of others who will read the letter and fume about federal overreach. Take, for example (on page 3), the Department’s request for a plan (within 60 days) with responses to six “elements” in each of eight bulleted “components” associated with changes in standards and tests. Senator Alexander’s admonition about Washington’s not turning into a “national school board” will likely ring in many an ear.

Regardless of which camp is bigger in size, those fuming are almost certainly going to be more vocal, and this may cause headaches along Maryland Avenue in D.C.

I hope the feds game-planned this when they were contemplating the ESEA-waiver strategy several years back. It doesn’t take an oracle to foresee trouble for the administration.

Now that Washington State has lost its waiver and Indiana could be on a path to nonrenewal, we shouldn’t be surprised if a handful of resourceful reporters and think-tankers start asking increasingly pointed questions about why other states, similarly noncompliant, haven’t been dinged. As a result, it might not be long before we see a considerably longer list of waiver nonrenewals and revocations.

That means there will be a stack of letters from Uncle Sam scolding various state leaders about their inadequate fidelity to federal rules related to standards, assessments, educator evaluations, school interventions, and more.

We then shouldn’t be surprised when the backlash to federal activity in K–12 swells. This will have big implications for not just the contours of the next ESEA reauthorization but also federal initiatives like Race to the Top, i3, TIF, and more.

It wouldn’t be totally unreasonable to begin wondering if one of the administration’s key initiatives (ESEA flexibility) ultimately undermines a number of its others (large competitive grants advancing federal priorities).

The interesting—and paradoxical—upshot here is that the greatest hope for the continuation of an active federal government in K–12 schooling is highly able and highly responsible states: if states handle their ESEA waivers well, then there will be no need for ED to slap wrists and therefore no additional fuel for those claiming federal overreach.

But if states renege on their promises and the feds feel obligated to come down hard, then opponents of federal K–12 activity will have a new laundry list of offenses to add to their bill of particulars.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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