No one should be surprised that the U.S. Department of Education’s new guidance for 41 states to renew the waivers granted to them under the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its accountability provisions effectively allows states to get away with continuing their shortchanging of poor and minority children. After all, the Obama Administration is facing a maelstrom of problems on every front inside and outside of education — and it has neither the political capital or fiscal coffers to stop states from going their own way.
Over the past few months, the administration has met stiff resistance in its efforts to hold states responsible for not following through on reforms promised as conditions for receiving the waivers. States such as Kansas, Oregon, and Washington State (likely with help from congressional leaders who represent their states) have pushed back on the administration’s effort to place their waivers into so-called “high risk status” (and thus, threatening to cancel them). Arizona’s state officials publicly sparred with the administration after it was threatened with being placed into high-risk status for refusing to count graduation rates for 20 percent of a school’s ranking on the state’s new accountability system (versus 15 percent), and for not revamping its teacher evaluation system to meet the waiver’s requirement.
The Obama Administration is faring no better with those few states that are still under No Child’s accountability provisions. In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown resisted Duncan’s threat to withhold $7.3 billion in federal funding if he signed into law Assembly Bill 484, which effectively eviscerates accountability (and gets around the administration’s decision to not grant the Golden State a waiver from No Child on its own terms) by eliminating all but a smattering of the state’s standardized tests. After all, Brown knows full well that any attempt to withhold federal funding will be challenged by Golden State’s influential congressional delegation (including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein); the former state attorney general is also likely betting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year on the Affordable Healthcare Act, which effectively makes it impossible for the federal government to withhold subsidies from states for not implementing new regulations, can also be applied to what the administration can do on the education policy front. In any case, the Obama Administration lacks much in the way of leverage against California’s move (and similar steps that could be taken by other states still under No Child) because it has effectively shredded the law, both through the waiver gambit and by blessing moves by states that are, in substance, little different than what California has done.
So one could easily see that the Obama Administration’s original rules for renewing waivers, which was released back in August, was likely to be tossed into the proverbial dumpster. In some respects, for good reason. The rules requiring waiver states to submit plans for providing poor and minority children with high-quality teachers was unworkable because it doesn’t address the supply problem at the heart of the teacher quality issues facing American public education; the fact that state education departments would have to battle with teachers’ union affiliates, suburban districts, and the middle-class white families those districts serve made the entire concept a non-starter. But the Obama Administration still could have required waiver states to divert federal Title II funding used for teacher professional development from shoddy programs that do little to improve teacher performance into better-quality regimens. The fact that the Obama Administration was so willing to let states continue to fund professional development programs unworthy of being called such is another sign that the when it comes to implementation, the administration is all hat and no cattle.
But again, none of this shocking. The Obama Administration is now retrenching from its reform agenda after botching it so badly. As Dropout Nation has pointed out ad nauseam since the administration unveiled the No Child waiver gambit two years ago, the plan to let states to focus on just the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent or more of schools with wide achievement gaps) effectively allowed districts not under watch (including suburban districts whose failures in serving poor and minority kids was exposed by No Child) off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula. The overall plan to eviscerate AYP also took away real data on school performance, making it more difficult for families from being the lead decision-makers reformers need them to be in order for overhauls to gain traction, while eliminating data that researchers and policymakers need to see how districts are progressing in improving student achievement. Add in the fact the waiver gambit is legally questionable because it goes beyond the adjustments the Obama Administration is allowed to do by law — along with the fact that the entire gambit effectively allows states to violate federal law with tacit backing of Obama and Duncan — and it was clear that the administration was setting itself up for failure.
The Obama Administration then proceeded to exacerbate its problems by engaging in even more shoddy policymaking. The administration granted waivers to to states in spite of questions raised by the peer review panel it put in place to vet the proposals about whether the promises made would be fulfilled. The administration effectively allowed many of the states granted waivers to game graduation rates — including counting low-grade General Education Development certificates in graduation rate calculations — and let them account graduation rates for fewer than a third of performance on the respective accountability indexes of waiver states. Meanwhile it allowed states such as Virginia, Florida, and Tennessee to define proficiency down for poor and minority kids by setting Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets that only require districts to ensure that fewer black and Latino kids are learning at proficient levels than their white and Asian counterparts.
Only after civil rights-based reformers, unlike their centrist Democrat and conservative reform allies, fully exposed the consequences of the waiver gambit has the Obama Administration even started to right the errors of its ways. But it is now too late. By engaging in the waiver gambit in the first place — and then handing out waivers to nearly every state with a half-baked plan — it effectively gave away all of its leverage without getting anything in return. Especially in light of the waiver gambit’s questionable status, and the political battle over the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards (which the waiver gambit helped support), the Obama Administration can do little more than be all talk and no action.
Meanwhile the Obama Administration is paying a high price for other bad decisions outside of education policymaking. The decision three years ago by President Barack Obama to not push for a budget for 2010-2011, a move to which Democrats who controlled all of Congress at the time had acquiesced (even as it was clear that the party would lose control of the federal lower house), has resulted in sequestration-triggered budget cuts that denies the administration funding it can leverage through competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top in order to force states to fulfill their promises under the waiver. The administration is also paying a price for its penchant for using executive orders to achieve short-term policy goals instead of negotiating with congressional leaders to achieve its aims. Because it has little credibility or good will among either fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill or with congressional Republicans, it has no allies in its efforts to hold waiver states accountable for their promises. And with Obama due to become a lame-duck president by year’s end, his congressional Democrat allies have no reason to do any more than necessary for their political survival on the administration’s behalf.
Democrats may not even do that. Why? Because Obama Administration’s botched roll-out of ObamaCare’s healthcare exchanges (including the troubled HealthCare.gov Web site) has sapped much of the administration’s credibility. These problems, along with other scandals (including those related to Big Brother-like domestic spying on American citizens by the National Security Agency) make it harder for Senate Democrats facing tough re-election odds such as Mark Begich of Alaska to stand by the administration on any issue, much less education policy.
Congressional leaders are more than willing to back any plan from the Obama Administration that ends up being little more than a way for states to get more money for nothing. This is clear from this week’s announcement of the Strong Start for American Children Act, the proposed early ed program which has been criticized for not requiring states to improve the quality of teaching in prekindergarten programs. But anything from the administration that smacks of holding states accountable for improving student achievement will not get congressional backing, especially from Harkin (who has proven in the past that he will do anything asked of him by the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers) and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (who wants to ditch No Child altogether and go back to the bad old days of handing federal money freely to states).
Anyone expecting the Obama Administration to further advance its education policy agenda — or advance systemic reform — shouldn’t stop their wishful thinking. This week’s retrenchment on the waiver renewal rules has shown that it has thrown in the towel on doing anything to help all children succeed.