Arne Duncan Spars With State K-12 Chiefs Over District Waivers

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 19, 2013 3 min read
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When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to talk to state education chiefs in Washington today, one of his first acts was to apologize. More specifically, he apologized on behalf of the federal government—and Congress specifically—for not acting to prevent sequestration, automatic across-the-board spending cuts.

Citing specific numbers that are particularly damaging for states, such as the $727 million in lost Title I funds for schools with high proportions of low-income students, Duncan said that federal lawmakers were not governing in the right way and could solve the problem immediately if they chose to. At the same time, he called on the chiefs to step up their public-relations efforts surrounding the sequester, saying they should highlight cuts that are affecting their schools and continue to pressure Congress to get rid of sequestration. Education for Native Americans on reservations and for the children of military families is already feeling the sequester’s wrath, and if it isn’t dealt with by the 2013-14 school year, its impact on state education will dramatically increase.

While most of Duncan’s discussion with the Council of Chief State School Officers was congenial, one point of contention was over district-level No Child Left Behind Act waivers. Duncan seemed to strike a balance, saying that while he understood states’ anxiety about granting such waivers, he did seem open to the possibility on a general level. This was particularly relevant to the subject of the California Office to Reform Education, a coalition of large California districts seeking its own NCLB waiver.

California Superintendent Tom Torlakson expressed anxiety about how his department may have to judge CORE districts differently than other California districts if they were granted a waiver. Duncan stressed that he wanted to keep the U.S. Department of Education flexible. While he said he preferred to work with states, he suggested that the possibility for CORE districts to do potentially productive pilots through a waiver, combined with their large combined enrollment of 1 million students, led him to believe that the U.S. department should be open to the possibility.

That stance irked Idaho Superintendent Tom Luna, who told Duncan he would have a big problem if the federal department went directly to districts to work on waivers and didn’t join hands with states on the issue. “It’s an affront to states rights,” Luna told Duncan.

Duncan tried to defuse the argument, saying that it was not his intention to do an end-run around states if district waivers were granted. But Luna, who was elected in 2006 on the Republican ticket, kept hammering away, saying that states had a constitutional right and responsibility to oversee their districts and not let the federal government intervene in such cases.

Jason Glass, Iowa’s director of education, said that as long as Duncan’s department worked with Iowa state officials along with Iowa districts seeking a waiver, he wouldn’t oppose it. (Glass’ state does not have an NCLB waiver in hand, while Luna’s does.) That latter sentiment was also expressed by Minnesota commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Like Deborah Delisle, Duncan’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who raised the idea of “Flexibility 2.0" during March 18 discussions with state chiefs, Duncan raised the possibility of further state flexibility from federal requirements. But the education secretary didn’t really elaborate on that theme. Remember, state NCLB waivers expire in 2014. Duncan waxed ecstatic about what states have done with their waivers, saying it would be “spectacular” if eventual Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization built on ideas that states effectively implemented in their waivers.

Duncan also touched on another dominant theme at the CCSSO meeting, the Common Core State Standards. While he praised states’ decision to adopt the common core as a “tremendous act of courage,” he also warned that teachers, while supportive of the common core generally, still don’t feel sufficiently informed about or prepared for the standards in order to feel completely comfortable with them. He urged states to continue working with their teachers on the new standards.

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