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Arne Duncan Not Sorry He Pulled Sen. Murray’s State’s NCLB Waiver

By Alyson Klein — January 12, 2015 4 min read
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As you know, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech Monday it’s crucial to keep the NCLB law’s testing schedule in place during a rewrite of the law. That’s lead to a lot of talk about whether the Obama administration can work with Republicans, who are seriously considering scaling back NCLB’s testing mandate, to pass a bipartisan reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

But it’s the Democrats whose reaction we should look to first.

After all, if a rewrite bill can’t get passed the Senate, it can’t make it to conference, right? And the GOP will need at least six Democratic votes to clear procedural hurdles in that chamber.

The lawmaker Duncan will likely most need at his side to keep annual tests in a reauthorized NCLB? Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee. Her colleagues will be looking to her to see how she handles the GOP proposals. Will she fight back hard, or stay at the negotiating table? And how much stock does she really put in helping the Obama administration get its priorities, when she probably has a few of her own?

Murray, who is known as an effective dealmaker, has a great incentive to compromise with Republicans: Her home state of Washington is the only ex-waiver state in the country. (Oklahoma also lost the flexibility, but got it back after the state’s higher education gave their stamp of approval to the Sooner State’s standards.)

While every other waiver state at least has gotten some relief from NCLB’s mandates, Washington still has to set aside nearly $40 million for outdated remedies like public school choice and tutoring. And the state had to send the NCLB-required letters to parents saying their children are attending failing schools. Which can’t be fun.

What’s more, the reason the state lost its waiver is bound up in—you guessed it—testing.

Washington state lost its flexibility because its teacher-evaluation system gave districts the option of using either state or local tests in teacher performance reviews, and the Education Department has insisted that state tests be part of the picture. Murray tried to get the feds to help Washington state hang onto the flexibility, but to no avail.

But since then, the Department has offered huge leeway to every other waiver state in the area of teacher evaluation, even letting them get an extra year to evaluations in place, while the Evergreen state has been out in the cold.

The state’s largest district, Seattle, has tried to get a district level waiver, but the Education Department hasn’t moved on that request, in the hopes that the entire Evergreen State may still be able to work something out on evaluations.

So is Duncan sorry he yanked Washington state’s waiver, now that he needs Murray’s help? Apparently not.

“I’ve never played politics. I never will,” he said. “I think that’s why I’ve been able to build strong relationships. And, he added. “Sen Murray has been a fantastic champion on these issues.”

Meanwhile, the organizations that are most likely to get Democrats on board—teachers’ unions—immediately released statements after the speech saying that make it clear they’re not backing off their pitch to scale back standardized testing.

“The waiver strategy and Race to the Top exacerbated the test-fixation that was put in place with NCLB, allowing sanctions and consequences to eclipse all else. From his words today, it seems the secretary may want to justify and enshrine that status quo and that’s worrisome,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT in a statement. She also noted that long-time union president Al Shanker, who Duncan quoted in his speech, favored testing only in certain grade spans.

And the National Education Association, a 3 million-member union, is still on the case, too.

“We must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas,” he said. “Parents and educators know that the one-size-fits-all annual federal testing structure has not worked. We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish ‘teaching to the test,’ expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students.”

So what effect will this have on Democrats? Already, it’s clear that they’re not completely buying Duncan’s message. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., a former teacher who tried to get a grade-span testing amendment introduced to an ESEA rewrite bill in the previous Congress, attended Duncan’s speech today and praised his civil rights message.

But he “believes we need to review testing as a whole, and that the way the testing is set up annually right now is too much,” a Takano aide said, even though he doesn’t think grade-span testing is “the end all be all solution.”