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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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RHSU Classic: The Duncan Precedent, 2013 Edition

By Rick Hess — February 12, 2020 1 min read
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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I’ve offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

Now, in the midst of the Trump era, education advocates, funders, and assorted Beltway bigshots are highly attuned to the reasons why we should be concerned about an unchecked executive branch. A few years back, this was a much lonelier beat. I penned this post in the midst of the No Child Left Behind “waiver” craze, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was giving states a pass around NCLB requirements if they embraced the Common Core, teacher evaluation, and the rest of his agenda. At the time, the wise guys kept telling me how ingenious this was and seemed put out by my objections. This imagined newscast from the future sought to illustrate my concerns in a way that might register. Now, on to number 13, originally published on August 11, 2011.

The Obama administration steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the problems with ED's "backdoor blueprint" waiver strategy or the ugly precedent that it's trying to set. But those with even a glimmer of imagination can see where this is going... Transcript from Fox News Channel January 13, 2013 Chris Wallace: First off, congratulations Congresswoman Bachmann on being named U.S. secretary of education by President-elect Perry. SecEd Nominee Bachmann: Thanks very much. It's a big job, and I'm looking forward to tackling it. Chris Wallace: Last November, the Democrats narrowly retained control of the Senate, and the Republicans enjoy only a modest majority in the House. Are you worried you'll be unable to make the legislative changes that you and the president think necessary? SecEd Nominee Bachmann: Once upon a time, that might've been a concern. Happily, the Obama administration provided a path for driving educational change even when you don't have the votes. That's why we've promised that, come Inauguration Day, we'll be ditching the Obama administration's requirements for waivers from No Child Left Behind and substituting our own. They'll be drawn from the president's plan that we've been calling the Freedom Blueprint. Chris Wallace: What do you have in mind? SecEd Nominee Bachmann: We'll be employing the Obama administration's notion that we can provide states waivers from federal law so long as they promise to do stuff that we like. We'll impose a few conditions for states seeking to maintain their NCLB waivers or obtain new ones. They'll have to adopt certain elements of our Freedom Blueprint if they want their waivers. Chris Wallace: What are those elements? SecEd Nominee Bachmann: We have five in mind. States will need to institute a moment of silence in all "turnaround" schools, adopt a statewide school voucher plan for low-income students and those in failing schools, require abstinence education, restrict collective bargaining to wages and prohibit bargaining over benefits or policy, and ask states to revise their charter laws to ensure that for-profit operators are no longer discriminated against on the basis of tax status. Chris Wallace: In response to your plans, Obama administration domestic-policy chief Melody Barnes has complained that you're distorting and misrepresenting what they did. She told MSNBC, "We insisted on a peer-review process. Moreover, all of our conditions could, if you squinted really hard, be vaguely connected to provisions in NCLB." What do you say to that? SecEd Nominee Bachmann: Oh, I can assure your viewers that we'll scrupulously abide by those same practices. We'll establish a peer-review process, and I'll take care to lay out criteria for reviewers and select reviewers who I think will do a good job. So, no problem. And our lawyers have already found ways to link all our criteria to NCLB and federal law at least as closely as the Obama team could link requirements like the Common Core and value-added teacher evaluation. Chris Wallace: Can you say a bit more about the claim that your conditions are consistent with the existing law? SecEd Nominee Bachmann: Sure. We see the moment of silence as simply one tool for ensuring a cultural shift in turnaround schools. It fits cleanly with the potpourri of turnaround models that the Obama administration championed and within the school restructuring framework of NCLB. The voucher condition is simply an expansion of the kinds of choice opportunities already provided by supplemental educational services and the school choice provisions and is consistent with established practice governing equitable services. The abstinence requirement is just a clarification of policy under Title IX. And the collective bargaining and charter school requirements I see as different only in emphasis, but not in kind, from what Duncan's team insisted upon under existing language regarding charter schooling and teacher quality. Chris Wallace: States that adopted the reforms that Secretary Duncan required might feel whipsawed by this change. SecEd Nominee Bachmann: Gee, maybe they should've thought of that before they so meekly accepted Duncan's conditional waivers in the first place. Chris Wallace: In some more Democratic states, like New York or California, governors have made it clear they agree that NCLB is broken, but that they're not willing to accept the conditions you've got in mind. They say that puts them in an untenable position. Any thoughts? SecEd Nominee Bachmann: I'll tell them what the Obama administration told the president-elect when Texas was considering seeking an NCLB waiver. Secretary Duncan said, "There's no pressure, no pressure at all. You're free to tell your schools and districts to live with one-size-fits-all mandates that just don't work. I'm sure your voters will understand why so many of their schools are labeled failing, and your suburban parents will welcome the mandated remedies." Chris Wallace: Some Democrats might say that's not really a fair choice. SecEd Nominee Bachmann: Oh, I don't know about that. Secretary Duncan told Governor Perry it was a fair choice. I believe his words were something like, "The president directed us to provide relief but only for states prepared to address our educational challenges." We feel the same way. We just want to see states signal their reform-mindedness by embracing a few key reforms. In fact, we've taken to calling it the Duncan precedent. Chris Wallace: But won't states that reject your conditions be trapped in a law that's regarded as broken? SecEd Nominee Bachmann: If I may quote Ms. Barnes from back in 2011, "We'll encourage all states to apply, and each one should have a chance to succeed. But those that don't will have to comply with No Child Left Behind's requirements, until Congress enacts a law that will deliver change to all 50 states." Chris Wallace: Thank you for your time, Madame Secretary-designate. SecEd Nominee Bachmann: No, thank you. And, if you don't mind, I'll just shout out a big Minnesota thank you to Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration for making this job so much more fun.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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