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Biggest Loser if ESEA Passes? Maybe the Next Education Secretary

By Alyson Klein — July 20, 2015 4 min read
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The House and Senate bills to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are largely seen as a big poke in the eye to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who pushed through sweeping changes to K-12 policy through waivers from the existing version of the law, without Congress’ approval.

But if an eventual rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act becomes law without major changes before the Obama administration leaves town, there may be an even bigger loser than Duncan: His successor.

Under both pieces of legislation, the person at the helm of Education Department wouldn’t get to do much on K-12 policy, other than cut checks, give speeches ... oh yes, and quickly approve state accountability plans.

Granted, that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun for Duncan. But he has only about 18 months left in office, probably even less by the time a bill makes it through conference and onto President Barack Obama’s desk. Plus, his power is on the wane, anyway.

The legislation could be a bigger bummer, though, for a newly minted education secretary who arrives in Washington wanting to help an incoming president (Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisc., Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, whoever) get his or her K-12 agenda off the runway.

Under the Senate bill, the secretary of education is prohibited from monkeying around with standards, tests, state goals, school turnaround remedies, and accountability systems. And the secretary would be specifically barred from offering conditional waivers, as Duncan has done. The department would get to approve states’ plans for using federal Title I money for low-income students, but it would only have 90 days to review them. (That’s compared to 120 days under current law.)

And states whose plans aren’t approved by the education department would get the opportunity to revise them, and even demand a public hearing exploring the reasons for their rejection. That would eliminate a lot of the behind-the-scenes-back-and-forth on the finer points of accountability plans that’s been a hallmark of the waivers.

The House bill arguably goes even further in restricting the department’s power. The bill includes similar prohibitions on standards, assessments, and accountability systems. And the secretary would continue to have 120 days to review state plans. (So more than under the Senate bill.)

But the House legislation also calls for the department to work with an expert in workforce efficiency to reduce costs. (Some “bobs?”) And, the House bill would eliminate some 80 federal programs—and demand that the agency make proportional staff cuts. In other words, the department would have to figure out how many people were working in those programs and then slash its staff by that number.

So it’s hard to imagine that anyone who wants to have a big imprint on K-12 education would be interested the ed sec gig. (On the other hand, if say, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is elected president and Arizona state chief Diane Douglas becomes education secretary, she might be pretty happy to Ron Swanson it, and tell states to do whatever they want. And analysts, say it’s probably better for the political prospects of at least one candidate—Hillary Clinton—if the bill passes sooner rather than later. Having the issue settled could save Clinton a fight with teachers’ unions over testing and accountability, which might be worth having a weakened education secretary.)

But, if Congress doesn’t finish an ESEA rewrite by January of 2017, the next education secretary could become a very important person, with a ton of power. After all, it will be up to the new administration to decide whether continue with the Obama administration’s waivers from the NCLB law—should the department hold states to their promises on teacher evaluation? What about common core?

Using your imagination for a minute, it’s easy to see how say, Walker’s ed sec might give states an NCLB reprieve if they’re willing to suspend collective bargaining for teachers. Or if Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana becomes secretary, he could decide to give states waivers only if they promise to never ever say the words “common,” “core,” or “standards” ever again. (Okay, fine, those are extreme examples, and the collective bargaining thing may or may not be legal, but you get the idea. And a hat tip to Rick Hess of Rick Hess Straight Up fame on the Jindal point.)

And it’s equally easy to see how a Democratic education secretary might want to largely continue with a lot of the work started under the waivers (minus, probably, teacher evaluation through test scores which are about as popular as kidney stones), or maybe offer states leeway from NCLB if they ramp up social and emotional learning and give kids access to wraparound services, like early-childhood education.

Bottom line: If the ESEA rewrite becomes law, the next education secretary may not have much say over K-12 policy. (Tip to the next prez: Appoint a pre-K/higher ed expert?) But if it doesn’t, they could be really, really consequential.

Photo credit: Associated Press.

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