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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

A Shameless Display on Waivers

By Rick Hess — February 10, 2012 4 min read
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The Obama administration made its big NCLB “waiver” announcement yesterday, getting the predictable, fawning edu-coverage. The announcement featured President Obama bragging, “After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my Administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility.”

Now, let’s just stipulate that President Obama and the folks at the Department of Education are good people who want to help kids. But that doesn’t excuse an exercise that struck me as hypocritical, graceless, and troubling. Six things about this latest spin of the waiver saga that seemed particularly disconcerting:

First, setting aside my reservations about Sec. Duncan’s right to not merely grant selected waivers but to impose wholly new requirements that exist nowhere in federal law, I was struck yesterday by the sheer number and scope of conditions that Duncan cheerfully imposed. These new requirements included, according to the White House release: “States must adopt and have a plan to implement college and career-ready standards. They must also create comprehensive systems of teacher and principal development, evaluation and support that include factors beyond test scores, such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback...they must set new performance targets for improving student achievement and closing achievement gaps. They also must have accountability systems that recognize and reward high-performing schools and those that are making significant gains.”

Second, maybe it’s just me, but I have trouble reconciling this list with the President’s proclamation yesterday that, “We want high standards, and we’ll give you flexibility in return...Because what might work in Minnesota may not work in Kentucky.” Indeed, one only had to read Duncan’s complicated, jargon-laden, finger-wagging letters to the ten approved states to see just how prescriptive the process is. In fact, I don’t think the extent of the new demands--and the limited flexibility granted--will be clear for weeks, at best. It’ll require patient observers to wade through the requests, letters, conditions, and so on. Just for starters, it would appear that the waiver “winners” just promised to adopt narrow, prescriptive teacher evaluation and school improvement policies that apply to charter schools as well as district schools--but not even charter authorities are entirely clear on how this will play out in reality or if these commitments should be taken any more seriously than so many empty promises in the Race to the Top applications.

Third, I found remarkably graceless the way in which the administration chest-thumpingly blamed the waivers on congressional inaction, while taking no responsibility for the slow pace of ESEA reauthorization (much less acknowledging that it dawdled for 14 months with a Democratic Congress before ever introducing its initial ESEA “blueprint.”) The White House gleefully declared, “The administration’s decision to provide waivers followed extensive efforts to work with Congress to rewrite NCLB.” This may come as news to those GOP edu-staff who complained persistently throughout 2009 and 2010 that they couldn’t get the Department to give them the time of day. The history added irony to the President declaring, with less respect for the U.S. Constitution than I might expect from a law professor, “After waiting far too long for Congress to act, I announced that my administration would take steps to reform No Child Left Behind on our own.”

Fourth, I was unimpressed by the way in which the administration--even as it criticized Congress for failing to act--went out of its way to steal attention from House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline’s long-scheduled introduction of two bills crucial to moving NCLB reauthorization. It’s hard to take seriously an administration that complains about congressional inaction and then counter-programs so as to minimize attention to congressional action. (If you want to hear more about what Kline has in mind, check out what he had to say when he previewed the bills at AEI yesterday morning. You can find the event here.)

Fifth, I was struck (and not favorably) by the “Stockholm Syndrome"-ness of it all. Watching governors and state chiefs go to the administration on bended knee and hustle to comply with its various demands, out of desperation to escape the more destructive elements of NCLB, doesn’t strike me as good for democratic government or school improvement. And I thought the celebratory press releases would’ve felt more authentic if they’d been read into a camera and recorded on grainy videotape. I’m sure it’s just my skeptical nature, but I couldn’t help flashing on those old Soviet show trials when the President opened by declaring, “I want to start by thanking all the chief state school officers who have made the trip from all over the country. Why don’t you all stand up just so we can see you all, right here.”

Finally, and maybe it’s just me, but I found it patronizing when the President mused yesterday, “So Massachusetts, for example, has set a goal to cut the number of underperforming students in half over the next six years. I like that goal!” Or, “Florida has set a goal to have their test scores rank among the top five states in the country, and the top 10 countries in the world. I like that ambition!” I’m sure it makes me old-school, but I prefer it when the President doesn’t treat governors or respected state chiefs as so many ruddy-cheeked toddlers competing for his approval.

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