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ESEA Issue to Watch: How Much Power Should the Education Secretary Have?

By Alyson Klein — November 11, 2015 4 min read
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Should the U.S. Secretary of Education be a powerful cabinet official able to prod states on everything from standards to dramatic school turnarounds? Or should they basically hand over the car keys to states?

That question—okay, fine, maybe not put exactly that way—is almost certain to have sparked at least some discussion behind the scenes as lawmakers (Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va.) and their probably-very-tired-by-now aides try to reach agreement on key issues in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

(They are said to be making tons of progress and getting close to a preliminary agreement that would help set the stage for an official conference process. There are even rumors that a compromise bill could be on the floor of both chambers by the end of the month, or early December. But nothing is set in stone just yet.)

Lawmakers in both parties—but especially Republicans—are really unhappy with the way Duncan and Company used Race to the Top, and especially, waivers from many of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, to leverage big change at the state level when it comes to teacher evaluations, school turnarounds, standards, and more.

Both the House bill (which squeaked by with GOP support only) and the Senate bill (which passed with big, bipartisan backing) would take aim at the secretary’s role and the scope of the Education Department.

What do the bills do when it comes to the secretary’s power?

Under both pieces of legislation, the secretary of education wouldn’t be able to offer states money (i.e. a chunk of Race to the Top cash) or flexibility (i.e. a waiver) in exchange their adoption of particular standards (including the Common Core state standards) tests, state goals, school turnaround remedies, and accountability systems. In fact, the ed sec would pretty much have to let states call the shots on those areas.

And under the Senate bill, the department would be under some strict new deadlines. It would still 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.)

States whose plans aren’t approved by the education department would get the opportunity to revise them. And they could ask for a public hearing examining the thinking behind their rejection, which sounds it could produce some very wonky soap operas. The point though, would be to eliminate the behind-the-scenes-back-and-forth on the finer points of accountability plans that have been a major part of the waivers.

The House bill has some extra restrictions, too. It would require the department to bring in efficiency experts and figure out if it’s really doing things in a cost effective way. Plus, the agency would have to make some major staff cuts, commensurate with the number of programs slashed under the bill (that’s about 80 programs).

So since the bills are so similar, why might secretarial authority be a sticky issue for negotiators?

Well, obviously, the White House is less than thrilled with what they see as language putting the Education Secretary in a straight jacket. And they are, after all, the folks who will have to sign this legislation, so they get some say.

The Obama administration hasn’t shared their counter offer with reporters since the hard work is happening off stage, but I’d assume that fewer restrictions are, or were, on their wish list.

Argument for a super small federal footprint: Duncan has totally overstepped his bounds, Republicans and some Democrats would say. Case in point: Teacher evaluations through test scores, which were never part of NCLB and which have proved both unpopular and tough to implement. Putting all these restricts on the next ed sec would keep something similar from happening ever again. And some state officials might say that they don’t need the Education Department to have heavy tools in its toolshed, they are going to do the right thing for kids whether the feds make them or not.

Argument for maybe not so many restrictions: Sometimes the Education Department is a really important equity traffic cop, civil rights advocates say. If the department has no carrots and few sticks in its arsenal, there won’t be anyone providing pressure and support to make sure states and districts fix drop-out factories and other low-performing schools, or schools that are doing well but have big achievement gaps, or take political dicey steps in the name of improving student achievement (like firing long-standing, but maybe not so effective principals.) Want a great summary of these arguments? Check out this Washington Post piece by Kevin Carey. (Duncan read it and recommends it.)

Whatever ends up happening,it will impact the next secretary—John King—and his successors more than Duncan, who is leaving next month.

What do you think? Is a weak ed sec bad for student achievement? Or is it a welcome breather from the “National School Board? Comments section is open.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan jokes about his nano technology knowledge during a panel discussion in 2013 about the Wheeling, Ill., High School STEM program.--Charles Rex Arbogast/AP-File