When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last week that he would take the next step in offering waivers to states from the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, he declared that he would only do so if applying states met certain conditions. One of them was that they had to embrace “college and career-ready” curricula standards, opening the door to the 44 states that enacted Common Core State Standards in reading and math would have a chance. Or so one thought.
Yesterday, Duncan announced during an interview on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers that replacing current state standards with Common Core would not be a requirement of getting the No Child waivers. The underlying reason for the backtracking is clear: Conservative school reformers who back Common Core such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — fearful of the reaction from libertarian and other conservative reformers already miffed at the idea of a national curriculum — loudly opposed Duncan’s plans. Congressional Republicans such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, who already oppose Duncan’s waiver effort (and with backing from think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation) were also likely to oppose tying Common Core to receiving waivers.
So now, Duncan will give waivers to states that meet a vague set of “high standards” that the Department of Education hasn’t exactly defined (and, as some conservatives declare, has no business to set in the first place). Which means that the low bar that has likely been set for the waivers — along with the low bar the free pass granted this week to Montana — will be even lower. If Common Core was a condition for the waivers, then the states would have at least had to attempt to fully implement them by developing corresponding curricula. But now, there may not even be any real way for the federal government to hold states accountable in exchange for flexibility.
This state of affairs prove once again that Duncan’s waiver gambit, prompted by the Obama administration’s desire to force Congress to reauthorize No Child on its terms, was a major political and policymaking blunder.
The Obama administration has lost high ground on the education policy front, losing momentum in driving its school reform agenda. The plan to waive aspects of federal policy has allowed Congressional Republicans to accuse the administration of constitutional overreach and rally the movement conservatives on which they depend (even though Duncan’s move achieves their own goals). The administration’s allies are actively pushing to keep accountability in the law and could end up working with congressional Republicans to block the waiver effort. It hasn’t exactly placated the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers or suburban districts opposed to No Child, who want to cripple the law through congressional action. And the waiver gambit may end up being costly to school districts, who have already spent time and money meeting state standards set under the current accountability regime.
Duncan is wasting away the two years of admirable successes he’s had in spurring school reform. His move has also caused chaos, with states pushing for the very lowering of accountability he decries. More importantly, he’s also making it more difficult for President Obama to point to a domestic accomplishment. He needs to just admit the waiver effort was an error, and just get back to work with Congress on a bipartisan reauthorization of No Child that expands the accountability needed for reforming American public education.