It's hard to tell whether Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former basketball star, is faking a pass. But if Congress doesn't reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB) -- the Bush-era education-reform law that used standardized tests to hold schools accountable for performance -- by the time kids go back to school this fall, Duncan is threatening to ignore it. The education secretary said he would use the authority NCLB grants him to issue regulation waivers to school districts in exchange for reforms consistent with the Obama administration's goals.
There may be a political calculus to Duncan's new push: the looming election. More than two years into the president's term and a year after releasing a blueprint for reforming the law, the administration's education agenda has taken a back seat to the spending wars that now consume Washington. Next month, the National Education Association (NEA), the country's largest teachers union, which has called for an overhaul, will decide at its convention whether to endorse Barack Obama in 2012. But Duncan's frustration stems from justified impatience. Rather than reauthorize the law, which would require a legislative overhaul and bipartisan cooperation, Congress has pushed off the problem by passing one-year extensions since 2007.
Critics have long assailed the law for its rigid benchmarks and focus on standardized testing, which some say have turned teachers into test-trainers and narrowed curriculum (a common derogative is "No Child Left Untested"). Many education policy-makers also say the federal government has failed to provide sufficient funds for implementing it while financially penalizing schools who fall short of its standards, leaving needy schools even more cash-strapped. But rather than reauthorize the law, which would require a legislative overhaul and bipartisan cooperation, Congress has pushed off the problem by passing one-year extensions since 2007.
In the blueprint for reform the Obama administration released last spring, the president called for, among other things, broader curriculum, further support for charter schools, and an overhaul of how student success is measured. In keeping with the approach the administration has taken with its signature education-policy initiative, "Race to the Top," the blueprint also called for teacher performance incentives and competitive grants for schools to spur innovation.
But part of the difficulty in reauthorizing the law stems from general disagreement over how to approach education reform.
Republicans oppose the administration's intervention in education on ideological grounds. Yet Republicans have not taken the lead to an improved bill. Their version of reform was to cut nearly half the programs associated with the law. When Obama implored Congress to try to fix the law by this fall, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, chairman of the House education committee, called that deadline "arbitrary."
On the other hand, the Democrats have been unable to forge a consensus about some of the most hot-button education-reform issues: teacher accountability, charter schools, and the question of whether to have a single national test or to allow states to set their own standards. As Dana Goldstein explained for the Prospect in "The Education Wars," the Democratic Party is split between reformers and the major teacher's unions. The Obama administration, in characteristic form, is trying to walk the tightrope between the two.
Last week, unions shot back at Duncan's over the announcement that he would just issue waivers and implement the administrations own plans. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (the second-largest teachers' union) came down hard, with the NEA saying that the reforms attached to the waivers would create "more unmanageable hurdles for schools and students." The AFT expressed unhappiness with what it considers a half-measure, saying that only Congressional authorization can accomplish real reform. The American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association also rejected the reforms attached to the waivers.
Duncan is currently meeting with governors, school boards and teachers to try to come up with a reform game plan in the event that he has to exercise his "Plan B." But at the moment, he's a mole before a mountain. Some conservatives are already painting his workaround as unconstitutional. Rick Hess, an AEI director and a blogger at Education Week, wrote: "However convinced Duncan is of his rightness, there are many who may disagree." Senator Harkin, who serves as head of the Senate's education committee, has made his views plain: "Given the bipartisan commitment in Congress to fixing No Child Left Behind, it seems premature at this point to take steps outside the legislative process."
But as Duncan knows, Washington is half a decade into being committed to reform. Faced with Congressional inaction, the administration seems all out of options.