NCLB Waivers Point to National Curriculum, Report Argues

By Sean Cavanagh — February 10, 2012 2 min read
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As states scramble to secure waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, they’re being led into accepting a national curriculum, a new paper contends.

The authors, Robert S. Eitel and Kent D. Talbert, are among the latest critics to argue that the Obama administration, through waivers and other means, is going too far in shaping curriculum policy from the federal perch.

The administration’s requirement that waiver-seeking states adopt “college- and career-ready standards,” has the effect of mandating that they participate in the Common Core State Standards, they say.

And that, they argue, contradicts language in federal law, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which bars the federal government from controlling curriculum.

Eitel and Talbert could be described as federal policy insiders. Both served as legal counsels at the U.S. Department of Education during George W. Bush’s administration. They’ve written the paper for the Pioneer Institute, a Boston research organization that supports free markets and “effective, limited and accountable government.”

Backers of the common-core standards have for years strongly denied that their efforts are aimed at imposing any type of national standards or curriculum on states. They say the creation of the common-core standards has been directed by state officials from the get-go—a point U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made again to reporters yesterday, in explaining the waiver process.

But Eitel and Talbert argue that the NCLB waivers, as well as the Race to the Top competition and Race to the Top Assessment Program, pressure states into accepting multistate standards and tests. Federal officials have provided funding for state assessment consortia charged with developing exams based on common standards.

Through these consortia, the U.S. Department of Education “has simply paid others to do what it is forbidden to do,” the authors say. “This tactic should not inoculate the Department against the curriculum provisions imposed by Congress.”

And the process for waivers from the NCLB law will create intense pressure for states to stick with the common standards in the future, whatever their misgivings, the authors say:

Any state effort to untether from the conditions imposed by the Department in exchange for having received an ESEA waiver will certainly result in the Department revoking the waiver. Moreover, given the extensive compliance costs imposed by the waiver (California has refused to seek waivers on cost grounds), the likelihood of any state doing so after having spent significant funds required by the waiver conditions is minimal. Like the dazed traveler in the popular Eagles' song 'Hotel California,' states can check out any time they want, but they can never leave."

Education Week explored the restrictions on the feds’ role in curriculum, and what the law actually says on this question, in a 2003 article, written amid debates over Washington’s role in setting reading policy.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.