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Duncan: Waivers Did Not Prevent Congress From Updating NCLB

By Lauren Camera — September 12, 2014 3 min read
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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan flatly rejected the notion that his No Child Left Behind waivers prevented Congress from reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, the outdated and much-reviled federal education law.

“I absolutely disagree with that,” said Duncan in an interview with Education Week Tuesday during his back-to-school bus tour. “There’s no pressure off of them.”

Critics of the waivers have argued that the decision to give states flexibility from the most burdensome parts of the NCLB law took the pressure off Congress to overhaul it. The question visibly irritated the secretary, who was in the midst of a seven-city, three-state tour that crisscrossed Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Slightly slouched on the bus couch, he shifted to sit more upright and shook his head.

“Legislators, their job is to legislate,” Duncan said. “Waivers were a temporary fix that we tried to do on a law that was outdated, that had perverse incentives, that was hurting children and hurting adults. And lawmakers need to step up in a bipartisan way and do their job.”

“Nothing we have done prevents them, prohibits them,” he continued. “That’s a bailout. That’s just absolutely a dishonest excuse and they need to get past their dysfunction.”

The House passed a rewrite of the law last summer, largely along party lines. The Senate education committee cleared a separate, bipartisan proposal, but it was never given priority for a debate and vote by the full chamber. As of now, the effort to overhaul NCLB is largely dead.

“We just spent a huge amount of time on it and Congress wasn’t serious about working in a bipartisan way,” Duncan said.

When asked whether pressuring Congress to reauthorize NCLB was a top-tier priority for the Education Department, Duncan demurred.

“It’s really not what’s my priority right now, but we would love to see it happen,” he said. “Congress has to determine its own priorities. Congress has had a very hard time doing that. We’ll do everything we can to help and support them, but if folks in Congress continue to believe that the only way to be successful is to do nothing and throw stones at each other, then that makes me sad for the country.”

He recommended that lawmakers, who just returned from a five-week summer recess, spend less time in Washington and more time inside schools that are struggling academically but testing out new, innovative ways to succeed.

“I don’t think there’s a legislative district in the nation that feels their graduation rate is high enough, that feels their drop-out rate is low enough, that feels enough of their high school graduates are college and career ready, that feels enough of their young children, their babies, have access to high-quality early learning,” he said. “So these goals, these issues should unite everybody and folks should be working hard on this.”

Duncan also mourned the forthcoming retirement of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, two lawmakers who devoted much of their political careers to championing education issues and ensuring equal opportunities for low-income students and those with disabilities.

“There’s no doubt that’s a real loss,” Duncan said. “Those are two lions, who I wouldn’t say were advocates for us, they were advocates for kids and children and cared passionately about this.”

Without naming names, Duncan pointed out that champions for education exist in both chambers and he hopes they step up after Miller and Harkin depart.

To read more about the back-to-school bus tour, visit our interactive map, where you can find blogs, tweets and photos of the three-day trip.