A rather typical group convened on Capitol Hill yesterday to discuss lessons learned from the first years of the Obama administration’s ESEA waiver plan. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee was joined by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, two prominent state chiefs, and two well-known education experts. So far, the administration has “waived” some of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) for 34 states and the District of Columbia, in exchange for adopting certain administration priorities. This strategy, which has received pushback from the right for demonstrating executive overreach and the left for retreating from accountability, has been the subject of much angst for policymakers and practitioners eager to witness a bipartisan reauthorization.
At the hearing, some of what occurred was expected:
Secretary Duncan defended his strategy and waiver criteria: Facing pushback from Senator Lamar Alexander, Duncan reiterated that No Child Left Behind specifies his authority to waive provisions of the law. While some may argue he overstepped his bounds by requiring states to adopt strict criteria, Duncan stressed that states have been innovative within the waiver requirements – even going as far as to say that “the level of creativity… coming out of states was pretty remarkable.”
State chiefs pushed hard for a speedy reauthorization: Both state chiefs who testified – Kentucky commissioner Terry Holliday and New York commissioner John King – asked the committee to consider reauthorization sooner rather than later. As King argued, “While New York was able to leverage the Waiver to support and accelerate ongoing reform efforts and our RTTT work, the Waiver is not a substitute for full reauthorization of ESEA.” Holliday concurred, citing that he and his fellow state chiefs support reauthorization first and foremost.
Republican senators raised concerns about executive overreach: In particular, Senator Alexander entertained the crowd by comparing the Secretary’s actions to a game of “Mother May I.” In addition to procedural trepidations, he asked Secretary Duncan (and later Commissioner King) why the federal government must compel states and districts to do things like teacher evaluation and adopt college and career ready standards, when it seems that they are able to do these things themselves.
The hearing also brought a couple notable surprises.
Longtime allies pushed back: In an interesting (and somewhat unexpected) twist, Education Trust’s Kati Haycock raised concerns about both the Department’s waiver guidance and flexibility approvals. Particularly, Haycock worried about states’ decision to combine accountability data to create “super sub-groups.” She warned that this action demonstrates a retreat from accountability, and noted that states are not weighting results from super-subgroups as strongly as they were weighted in NCLB.
Advocates and analysts recommended “tabling” reauthorization: Despite widespread agreement that congressional dysfunction has pushed off reauthorization for too long, both Haycock and Bellwether Education Partners’s Andy Smarick suggested that we should not rush to reauthorize. Particularly, Smarick recommended “delay[ing] reauthorization until 2015 at the earliest and us[ing] the next 24-36 months to vigorously study the waivers and their effects.” Haycock agreed that a speedy reauthorization would prevent us from analyzing the data emerging from state accountability systems, and learning important lessons to be used in the next go-around.
Strange bedfellows emerged: In a discussion about what the next reauthorization might look like, a number of interesting partnerships surfaced. Rand Paul of Tennessee and Colorado’s Michael Bennet found common ground, both noting that the current federal funding system does not create incentives for school improvement. Paul explicitly recommended a “money follows the child” approach, while Bennet urged Congress to consider providing local districts more flexibility to use federal dollars in the ways they see fit. Similarly, both sides of the aisle agreed with Secretary Duncan’s assertion that paper credentials are a poor measure of teacher effectiveness, and that Title II is ripe for substantial improvements.
Only time will tell whether yesterday’s hearing will have substantial implications for ESEA reauthorization. But one thing is for sure – more research is needed into what policies states with waivers are adopting, and how they are playing out in implementation. Ignoring 34 (and hopefully more) state “laboratories of innovation” will ensure that the next round of NCLB creates more headaches than the first.