Waivers: no state left behind

The Obama administration passed the halfway mark last Friday in its ongoing effort to dismantle the most vexing accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, one waiver at a time. By exempting Wisconsin and Washington from the ever-unattainable goal of reaching near-universal math and reading proficiency by 2014, the Department of Education brings the grand total of liberated states to twenty-six, with ten more (plus D.C.) eagerly awaiting word on their applications from Arne Duncan. Yet despite its importance in reshaping the federal role in education, the waiver program defies easy labels. Forget EduJobs or Race to the Top: ESEA flexibility is likely the Obama administration’s greatest contribution to education policy, but it may also prove to be a political liability in this fall’s election. Despite being driven by a Democratic administration in Washington, it’s welcomed by many Republican governors relieved to escape requirements dictated from D.C. It’s at once a necessity given congressional gridlock but also illegal given its end-run around the legislature. It purports to offer flexibility but in many ways ratchets up federal rulemaking. Unless Congress can make any headway in reauthorization, however, the real legacy of the waiver policy won’t be reshaping accountability (and teacher evaluation and standards, etc.) in dozens of states—it will be shifting the federal role in education from the Capitol to the White House.

‘No Child’ Law Whittled Down by White House,” by Motoko Rich, New York Times, July 6, 2012

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