Mr. Secretary, please don’t do it

The U.S. Department of Education is on the verge of making an unprecedented and unwise decision.

Classroom

Unless Secretary Duncan can be prevailed upon to reconsider, decades of education policy will be overturned and a federal agency will have assumed authority that should remain squarely in the hands of Congress and the states.

A group of California districts have jointly applied for an NCLB accountability waiver. So far only states have had proposals approved. It’s not the consortium’s application that’s noteworthy; it’s that the feds are taking it seriously. (Duncan evidently encouraged them, and the submission has been forwarded to peer reviewers.)

There’s very good reason to deny the application on the merits. The proposed accountability system relies too heavily on non-academic measures; sets the expectations bar too low; has weak interventions; and, most troublingly, trusts districts to hold themselves accountable. (Grave concerns about the plan’s achievement-gap implications have been raised by, among others, a former Bush administration official and Ed Trust’s head.)

But regardless of its content, this application—and similar district-accountability-waiver requests—should be denied for two reasons.

First, for years America has maintained an intricate K–12 accountability framework, with states playing lead. I never realized how critical this was until I worked for a state education agency.

Under state constitutions, state governments have responsibility for public education. Districts are creatures of state law—a mechanism for delivering on a state obligation. When courts determine funding is insufficient or results are unacceptable, they turn to the state.

It’s difficult to overstate the confusion introduced and leverage lost should the Department create a novel district-federal accountability relationship

This has led to an elaborate edifice of policies and practices with the state at the fulcrum. States adopt content standards and administer end-of-year assessments. States set proficiency cut scores, require interventions, and certify teachers. They monitor the implementation of state and federal policies and the distribution of state and federal funds.

Because of these authorities and responsibilities, states are the primary drivers of reform. Governors in the 1980s were able to advance the standards movement because state governments were the locus of K–12 power. Today’s exceptional state chiefs are able to lead Common Core implementation, common-assessment transitions, teacher-evaluation reform, and much more, largely because of the leverage provided by state accountability systems.

States like Massachusetts and Florida made substantial achievement progress over the last twenty years because of rigorous statewide reform plans. Others have made lesser but still palpable progress.

Granting district waivers to circumvent state-level accountability not only overturns NCLB, it upends the core of ESEA accountability

The Department must recognize that this structure buckles when the state is removed as the cornerstone. A unitary accountability system enables the state to fairly and transparently monitor program compliance and inform the public about performance; make difficult decisions about withholding funds, intervening with local boards, and taking over schools and districts; and uniformly and thoroughly administer federal programs.

It’s difficult to overstate the confusion introduced and leverage lost should the Department create a novel district-federal accountability linkage.

The second reason for denying district waivers is that approval would constitute a worrisome level of presumptuousness by an executive-branch agency.

For decades, the federal government, working within a statutory framework created by Congress (principally, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), has supported the K–12 accountability framework described above. Even the audacious NCLB respected state authority, having states make decisions about standards, assessments, interventions, and more.

The decision to grant state ESEA waivers unquestionably pushed the limits of administrative authority. But at least state waivers maintained the basic architecture provided by the underlying federal law.

Granting district waivers to circumvent state-level accountability not only overturns NCLB, it upends the core of ESEA accountability. That is not within an administration’s discretion. If that’s to happen, it should be the culmination of a deliberative congressional process, not the product of a unilateral executive-branch decree.

Anyone familiar with the NCLB provision cited as the authority for state waivers or the statutory language that gave rise to Race to the Top knows that this Department is, shall we say, "expansive" when deducing its powers. (The New York Times called the state waiver strategy “the most sweeping use of executive authority to rewrite federal education law” since the 1960s.)

One can only wonder how the late Sen. Robert Byrd—jealous defender of congressional prerogatives—would’ve reacted upon hearing Secretary Duncan’s brash ultimatum, “If Congress doesn't act, we will.”

But even Congress’s most vociferous NCLB detractors and most passionate local-control advocates should bristle at the idea of district accountability waivers. U.S. Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander questioned the Department’s authority to grant this type of waiver. One state superintendent said it “undermines states”; another called it an “affront.”

A state’s refusal to take the federal government’s bait doesn’t empower the Department to then negotiate a superseding deal with its districts

Indeed, the CORE (the consortium of California districts) proposal admits that its “application is unique given the lack of direct involvement from the state education agency”; it seeks to “build a new system of accountability” and give participating districts authority “rather than simply comply[ing] with state-level decisions.”

So far, it appears that the Department is relying on two defenses: First, there’s a history of district-federal relationships. Second, they’ve already given districts waivers on other matters.

Yet both underscore my point.

Existing district-federal relations are based on grants, not accountability systems. And approved district waivers are for narrow matters like flexibility with SES requirements and adjustments to test types; again, that’s very different than a new district-driven accountability system.

I take the Department at its word that it would prefer to work with states. But a state’s refusal to take the federal bait doesn’t empower the Department to then negotiate a superseding deal with its districts. The Department should not bypass the state’s constitutionally empowered education authority, override decades of precedent, and brush aside the intent of ESEA’s accountability framework because a state didn’t do what the Secretary wanted.

Now the Department has a problem. Secretary Duncan, having encouraged CORE and needled Congress, may feel pot-committed to approving the proposal. Like a young Orwell with the elephant, he may be compelled to see to conclusion an unfortunate progression of events he set in motion.

Now is the moment for the architects and leaders of our decades-old system of accountability to step up—CCSSO, NGA, members of Congress, former senior Department officials, civil-rights advocates. It might require a series of sotto voce conversations with the Secretary and a jointly signed public letter.

The message can be simple: Mr. Secretary, on other matters, your boldness has served you well. But this is a bridge too far. Please don’t do it. What your predecessors have carefully built and maintained over years shouldn’t be undone by the stroke of your lone pen.

This piece was edited on April 11, 2013, for the Education Gadfly Weekly.

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