One would think a school reformer would applaud the letter sent yesterday to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan by House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Democrat George Miller and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin demanding that the Obama administration’s No Child waiver gambit doesn’t allow states to dismiss their obligations to poor and minority children by essentially eliminating subgroup accountability as set up through the No Child Left Behind Act’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions. One would also think the average reformer would also give some thoughtful consideration to the letter sent earlier this week by groups such as the Education Trust lambasting House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline for proposing to essentially allow states to ditch accountability altogether.

But Thomas B. Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli is none too happy with any of them. In his latest commentary, Petrilli lambastes them for supposedly favoring “flexibility” in federal education policy, but are demanding that subgroup accountability remains intact. From where he sits, there’s no way his fellow reformers can be supportive of flexibility and still demand states to maintain AYP as is. In the process, Petrilli seems to be more concerned with allowing states to do as they please than with the core principle of helping all children succeed in school and in life that is at the heart of the school reform movement.

The first problem with Petrilli’s argument starts with his declaration that all Beltway reformers think No Child “went too far”. Neither former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings nor Sandy Kress (who crafted No Child in the first place) or Andy Rotherham would agree. Same is true for the EdTrust,  the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, just to name three prominent groups. If anything, there is a rather vocal group of reformers who argue that No Child hasn’t gone far enough in addressing the systemic problems plaguing American public education — and, by extension, plenty of disagreement over how much flexibility there should be in federal education policy (or even if there should be any flexibility at all).

The second problem with Petrilli’s argument is his underlying theory, shared by far too many of my conservative and libertarian fellow-travelers these days, that No Child is too inflexible. Certainly the legacy elements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act upon which No Child is based is certainly far too compliance-oriented. For example, the supplement-not-supplant rules, which essentially lead school districts to use Title 1 dollars in providing field trips instead of developing innovative instruction and reading remediation programs, is one aspect of the law that needs to be ditched altogether. But when one looks at the aspects of No Child charged with spurring systemic reform — including the Highly-Qualified Teacher provisions and even AYP itself — one can easily say that states and school districts have been given too much flexibility (and thus, ability to game the system).

Contrary to what some want to argue, No Child has always been more of a symbolic expansion of the federal role in education — and the acknowledgement that the nation has an education crisis — than a real one.  The expansion of the federal role in education — one which has existed since the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act in 1862 — came with the passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958 and the enactment of the original Elementary and Secondary Act seven years later. Even with the passage of No Child, the feds still account for a mere nine percent of the $591 billion spent annually on schools. From the federal perspective, what the law did was finally demand states and districts to show results for those dollars given after four decades of receiving billions with only compliance strings attached. This signaled the  federal government’s slow move from a compliance mentality to a results orientation (as well as made it clear that solving the education crisis is a national priority).

What No Child really did was signal the reality that states, not school districts, control the direction of education. Given that school districts, as local governments, are merely tools of state control, this has always been implied. But since the 1960s, the passage of state laws forcing districts to bargain with teachers’ unions, along with school funding lawsuits, property tax reforms, and the advent of the standards and accountability contingent of the school reform movement (of which Fordham is — or was — a leading light), has led states to take a more prominent role in shaping education. No Child demands states to account  for how schools are improving the performance of poor and minority children, and hold districts accountable for success or failure. But it also gives plenty of leeway to states when it comes to interpreting how to meet certain requirements, like the one assuring that all teachers be “highly qualified” for instruction, and  allows them to develop their own solutions in order to achieve them.

Thanks to federal education officials in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, states have actually had far too much flexibility and have been allowed to game accountability. States were allowed to spend too much time slowly putting AYP into place (and in some cases, even lowering standards for academic success), then ratcheting things up. This act of gamesmanship — and the willingness of federal officials to allow for it — is one reason why Duncan has been going around this past year proclaiming that as many as 82 percent of schools would be found academically failing. This tolerance of gamesmanship has continued in the Obama administration. Duncan, for example, allowed Montana and Idaho to keep their accountability targets at 2010 levels (and thus breaking their own promises to hold their districts accountable for failure) and allowing Virginia to set its accountability targets retroactively.

When one considers how states were allowed to simply grant Highly-Qualified Teacher status to veteran instructors, and the tacit unwillingness of failing districts to abide by the spirit of No Child’s school choice provisions, one realizes that the real problem is that No Child has allowed for a tad too much flexibility. And yet, even amid all this, as I pointed out in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, the law spurred reforms that have helped lead to at least 217,432 fewer fourth-graders being functionally illiterate (and thus being on the path to poverty and prison) in 2011 than in 2002 — and spurring the first wave of systemic reforms upon which we are building now.

Instead of rolling back No Child’s accountability provisions, we need to expand them. This includes holding the nation’s ed schools to the fire for their poor recruiting and training of aspiring teachers; requiring states to monitor the performance of young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds; and establishing a uniform chronic truancy rate that teachers and principals can use in stemming dropouts. The Obama administration and Congress could easily do this through the reauthorization process, and still revise the supplement-not-supplant rules and other mere compliance aspects of the law that should be repealed.

Meanwhile Petrilli dances around the rather legitimate and substantial issue being raised by Miller, Harkin, and array of school choice activists and civil rights players in the school reform movement: How to ensure that states are holding districts and schools accountable for providing high-quality teaching and curricula to all of their students, including those from poor and minority backgrounds. On this count, the Obama waiver gambit is a gutting of accountability, while Kline’s reauthorization effort is a white flag on federal education policy and strong vigorous systemic reform.

As Center for American Progress scholar Jeremy Ayers pointed out last month in his report on initial waiver applicants, only Massachusetts and Tennessee have submitted proposals with clear goals and worthwhile accountability systems. Other states, including those with otherwise exemplary and aggressive reform-minded governors and school leaders such as Indiana and Florida, have proposed to ditch racial, ethnic, and economic subgroup categories and replace them with a super-subgroup that commingles poor and minority students into one.

Meanwhile the Kline plan, contained in a series of bills including the Student Success Act, doesn’t even require states to still subject the nation’s 5,000 dropout factories and the five percent of schools with wide achievement gaps, something that both the Obama waiver plan and Sen. Harkin’s own less-than-satisfactory plan for reauthorizing No Child had required. Although Kline’s plan does require states to develop accountability systems, it offers little in the way of direction for what those systems should look like and doesn’t even set any form of aspirational goal for proficiency. In short, it’s not worth the paper upon which it is written.

If either the Obama waiver plan allows for these states to do this subgroup lumping, or the Kline plan actually sees the light of day, states and districts would be let off the hook for ensuring a high-quality education for all children. It also makes it more difficult to spur systemic reform — including the implementation of the very Common Core standards in reading and math Petrilli and Fordham has championed over the past two years. As Brookings Institution scholar Russ Whitehurst pointed out right after Obama and Duncan announced the waiver gambit last year, common standards won’t work without common accountability; without accountability, it is almost impossible to hold states, districts, and schools accountable for actually providing high quality curricula.

For parents, in particular, it would mean the loss of information on how children of different racial, ethnic, and income groups are served by districts and schools that is critical to their decision-making. After all, these families — especially black, Latino, and Asian families who are joining the middle class for the first time and moving into suburbia — have learned the hard way that suburban schools can be just as abysmal as the urban dropout factories they fled, and that their kids are often afterthoughts in instruction and curricula. Given their realities, the elimination of subgroup accountability actually does more to hurt their efforts to help their kids get the high-quality education they deserve. It also hurts their ability to exercise school choice effectively and limits their ability to exercise their rightful lead role as decision-makers in education.

Contrary to what Petrilli may think, Harkin, Miller, and others are raising a rather legitimate point, one that strikes at the two core beliefs of the school reform movement itself: That all children, especially kids from poor and minority households long abused by American public education, need and deserve a high-quality education — and that we must do everything possible to make sure they get it. Certainly one can argue for a flexible approach that doesn’t require regulating every step taken to achieve those goals. But when questions of flexibility in federal education policy conflict with those core belief, reformers should be expected to not be too ready to embrace the former at the expense of the latter. Especially when the real issue isn’t flexibility, but the problems education traditionalists have with spotlighting the harsh reality that the practices they defend have contributed to the substandard quality of education throughout this country, regardless of whether you live in New York City or Fairfax County, or whether your child is in a special ed class or in the gifted-and-talented program.