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Federal Opinion

Duncan’s “Backdoor Blueprint” Strategy

By Rick Hess — August 08, 2011 4 min read
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Hidy, all. It’s me. I’m back from points south, west, north, and so forth. I want to thank our terrific line-up of guest bloggers for their outstanding work. Anyway, I was going to settle in with a few broad musings, but I’ll hold that for a moment in light of ED’s decision, teased Friday but embargoed until this morning, to test new heights of hubris when it comes to ESEA.

On Friday afternoon, in a hush-hush press call, Secretary Duncan and White House domestic policy honcho Melody Barnes told a handful of select national press more details about their scheme to offer conditional NCLB waivers. On the call, Duncan finally dropped his disingenuous (or ill-informed) insistence that NCLB reauthorization would happen this year. Like a forlorn groom finally conceding at dusk that his bride-to-be isn’t showing for their noon wedding, he acknowledged that reauth isn’t going to happen this year (as I’ve said before, it’s not going to happen next year either). Second, Duncan and Barnes said they’d be allowing states to apply for waivers in return for pledging fealty to elements of the administration’s NCLB “blueprint.” Apparently, the Department will pen a request for proposals, including various blueprinty requirements, and then convene some kind of “peer review” process to judge them.

ED’s press release explains, “The administration’s proposal for fixing NCLB calls for college and career-ready standards, more great teachers and principals, robust use of data and a more flexible and targeted accountability system based on measuring annual student growth. Barnes and Duncan said that the final details on the ESEA flexibility package will reflect similar goals.” I’m curious to see just what Duncan has in mind. Is he planning to condition regulatory relief on states agreeing to adopt the Common Core and associated assessments, or to require the use of value-added scores in teacher evaluation? If so, it’s going to be an interesting fall.

Three thoughts:

First, this all represents a pretty novel theory of waiver authority, one which turns waivers into something more like a statutory bypass. What Duncan and Barnes seem to have in mind is not insisting that states demonstrate that they’ll abide by the spirit of the law, or find other ways to comply with NCLB’s requirements, but letting states ignore federal legislation in return for promising to do other stuff that they like. I’d think that Obama would want to tread real gingerly here, as a Romney or Perry administration could use this play to wreak havoc on health care or financial reform.

Second, maybe it’s just me, but this whole plan for an RFP process and peer reviews sounds a lot more like a way to push desperate states to embrace the administration’s agenda than a way to provide regulatory relief from a law “forcing districts into one-size-fits-all solutions that just don’t work” (the Department of Ed’s own words in its press release). In fact, the whole scheme sounds more like the framing of a back-door grant competition than anything else.

Third, let’s remember that Duncan and Barnes are preparing to push states to embrace a blueprint that isn’t the law of the land and that hasn’t even been adopted by a single house of Congress--not even when the Democrats enjoyed two years of unified control. The administration’s stance is more than a little ironic, given the President’s repeated assurances that he’s not interested in expanding Washington’s footprint. Indeed, I remember candidate Obama’s compelling critique of the Bush administration’s creative efforts to expand executive authority, and his promise that things would be different in an Obama administration. Ah, well.

Oh, and just for good measure, in a gratuitous slap at House Republicans, the release quoted Barnes saying that the administration was forced to act because its “proposal to fix NCLB has been with Congress for 16 months” but had been sunk by “partisan politics in the House.” The funny thing is that the “partisan” Republican majority in the House (which has held sway for eight months) has passed elements of reauthorization legislation while the (presumably nonpartisan) Senate hasn’t passed anything. Ah, the vaunted Obama political operation at work. With this kind of velvet touch, it’s hard to imagine why the GOP hasn’t been more cooperative on the administration’s edu-agenda.

For what it’s worth, I see two ways this can play out. The happy version, if you’re Duncan, is that hard-pressed states are thankful for any relief, and Congress is too distracted by fights over the gas tax, the FAA, the super-committee proposal, and next year’s budget to pay attention. The alternative? Frustrated governors or irate Tea Partiers start to raise a fuss about this novel strategy for extending Uncle Sam’s reach, and it becomes a talking point for Bachmann and Perry during the GOP primaries. As for which way things will go, your guess is as good as mine.

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