President offers states an opt-out from NCLB -- in exchange for more federal control of education

The president today announced his plan to allow states to opt out of the most onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind, the most sweeping and comprehensive education legislation in the country. What he didn’t mention is what states will have to give up to qualify for a waiver.

States will receive a waiver if and only if they agree to certain conditions set by the Education Secretary. CNN calls those conditions “credible commitments to close lingering achievement gaps.” Conservatives call those conditions “strings attached” and “legislating through the executive branch.”

Chief among the administration’s stipulations for a waiver: The adoption of college-and-career-ready standards (a.k.a. national standards). National standards and tests might sound sensible in theory, but, in reality, they would strengthen federal power over education and weaken schools’ direct accountability to parents and taxpayers. Moreover, they would most likely lead to the standardization of mediocrity rather than the standardization of excellence.

But national standards are a favored policy proposal within the Obama Department of Education — and, again, with today’s move to introduce a qualified opt-out from NCLB, the president has found a way to circumvent Congress to push through this policy preference and other preferred “reforms.”

“What the administration is doing by attaching stipulations to a waiver is forcing states to adopt the administration’s proposals,” said Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “Among conservatives there has rightly been a lot of skepticism because this is putting a lot of power into the hands of the Secretary. If he can single-handedly dismiss No Child Left Behind and push through his policy preferences just through waivers, that sets a dangerous precedent.”

The administration is already saying 45 states are likely to seek waivers — but Burke cautioned state leaders to think before they do.

“States should be very wary to accept these waivers because they might be receiving temporary relief from No Child Left Behind, but they’re accepting long-term handcuffs because they’re ceding control to Washington,” she said.

In a contrast to the president’s abrupt announcement, Congress has been thoughtfully and comprehensively exploring the questions of what the federal role in education should be and of how NCLB should be updated for some time now. The president had hoped Congress would reauthorize NCLB by this August. When that didn’t happen, he proceeded on his own with this new plan. It’s a familiar pattern.

In many respects, No Child Left Behind was itself a problematic piece of legislation that represented a massive federal overreach into education. By requiring all students to demonstrate proficiency in reading and math by 2014, NCLB enticed states to water down proficiency standards. That was an unfortunate and unintended consequence of the legislation. But the solution, Burke stressed, is not for the executive branch to overstep its bounds. Yes, the Secretary has waiver authority under NCLB — but he doesn’t have the authority to use waivers to rewrite the law.

Congress does, however — and has already introduced legislation like A-PLUS, which would allow states to completely opt-out of NCLB.

“If the administration is truly concerned about providing flexibility to sates, why isn’t it going along with legislation that would provide genuine flexibility through the normal legislative process — not the mirage of flexibility offered through these waivers?” Burke asked.

And lest there be any confusion, increased flexibility and a reduced federal role in education are important from more than just a limited government standpoint. Increased local and state control makes for tighter accountability and better educational outcomes.

“For half a century, we’ve seen increased federal control over education and little to no improvement to student outcomes,” Burke said. “When we see success, we see success at the state and local level.”

For that reason, Burke said, the president’s move today to further reduce federalism in education represents a highly significant development.

“I think this is one of the biggest education stories of the past decade,” she said. “This is really reshaping Washington’s role in a direction that is antithetical to state and local control. … The administration is going in precisely the wrong direction.”

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David Strom 3:31 PM on March 27, 2023