The National Education Association, along with others among the nation’s entrenched education interest groups, are aggressively lobbying Education Secretary Arne Duncan to make radical use of agency waivers to selectively eviscerate the union’s least favorite school responsibilities under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Just weeks after the 2010 election, NEA leaders sent a letter to Secretary Duncan detailing a plan to use waivers “to offer specific avenues of relief” from current federal education laws. The NEA scheme is a backdoor plan to effectively implement much of the legislative agenda it has pressed, unsuccessfully, in recent years, only without seeking Congressional approval.
Proposed waivers include lowering the bar for state teacher certification requirements; allowing schools to spend school choice funds on any, non-choice programs; permitting schools to use portfolio assessments instead of standardized tests to measure schools’ performance, and not counting test scores for English learners for their first three school years. Department officials acknowledge that the Secretary is considering the request.
Under Secretary Duncan’s leadership, the Department of Education has already made liberal use of its waiver authority. In 2009 alone, the agency granted 351 waivers from NCLB requirements. Most of these permitted states to ignore the law’s choice requirements to offer public school choice or afterschool tutoring to students at persistently failing public schools. In its final year in power, the Bush Administration granted 51 waivers.
But the NEA plan would ratchet up this waiver program to a new level, essentially stripping out the fundamental requirements of the statute without consulting Congress. While some use of departmental waivers is explicitly permitted in the law, advancing this scheme would represent a bold power grab for federal educrats, who already hold unprecedented authority and leverage over the nation’s schools.
Total federal department spending for elementary and secondary education in FY 2010 totaled $39 billion, 43 percent higher than the $27.3 billion spent in FY 2001. In addition, the agency paid out over $70 billion in Congressionally-approved Recovery Act education funding. The $4.3 billion Race to the Top Fund, the dedicated “reform” piece of this package, was a department-controlled competitive grant competition that had state legislatures scrambling to pass elements of Duncan’s reform agenda needed to qualify for the funds, like adopting new national standards.
President Obama noted this week that the Administration would model its strategy for replacing No Child Left Behind largely on its Race to the Top approach, a plan which would seek to grant federal education officials even greater authority to choose how to “show schools the money.”
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