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Regulatory Relief. But at What Price?

Last week Secretary Duncan hurled down the gauntlet to the United States Congress. In essence, he told reporters in a telephone press conference that he would start handing out waivers to states if the Congress does not finish reauthorization by the end of the summer. This would be good news for many states who find themselves beleaguered by a law that does not work. As we have seen in the past there is no quid without a quo with Secretary Duncan and this gambit is no different.  The relief will only be given to those states who stipulate that they will pursue course of prescribed reform strategies. Here is how he explained it on Politico:

Our administration will develop a plan that trades regulatory flexibility for reform. If Congress does not complete work on reauthorization soon, we will be prepared with a process that will enable schools to move ahead with reform in the fall. States, districts and schools need the freedom to implement high standards, strengthen the quality of their teachers and school leaders and embrace a more flexible, fair and focused system of accountability.

The purpose of our administration’s plan is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability but, rather, to unleash energy for reform at the local level even as Congress works to rewrite the law. It’s a meaningful step to help educators, parents and community leaders transition from today’s stifling, top-down approach toward a climate of locally designed innovation and excellence.

The Senate is “working” on a bill and Senator Harken remains optimistic that lawmakers can complete it. The House chair, Representative Kline, however, has been emphatic that they will not have a complete bill, but plan on filing several smaller bills dealing with several aspects of NCLB. The critical accountability measures like AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) or the looming 2014 deadline for 100% proficiency are not among the planned House bills for action this summer.

The states have been pleading for regulatory relief for some time now. In fact, just last month the state of Montana hurled its own gauntlet down to Secretary Duncan. State superintendent Juneau said to Duncan, in a letter which she hand-delivered, that she would not raise the target for AYP for the upcoming school year as required by law. The state had set a path to reform for itself incorporating the elements required by the Race to the Top competition. “I’m not asking permission,” Juneau said in an interview. She said it’s “unfair” to make schools work on both the old priorities of the No Child Left Behind law and the new priorities set by the Obama administration.

Another revealing case is the Montgomery County story. For over a decade this 22,000 student district has been developing and refining a peer evaluation and assistance program called P.A.R. (Peer Assistance & Review). The success of the program has relied upon a deep trust between all parties. The district recently turned down a substantial Race to the Top grant because Secretary Duncan refused to waive the requirement that student test scores be incorporated into the evaluation system in spite of the successful track record of Montgomery County system.

This is just the kind of dogmatic imposition of leveraged reform notions that give the lie to much of Mr. Duncan’s rhetoric about flexibility. Although the department has been vague about specifics, they have indicated that they will be developing a “basket of specific strategies” that states requesting relief will be required to implement.

As desperate as states may be, this looks to be a definite case of  “caveat emptor” —

let the buyer beware.

  1. Bob Murphy #

    Good observation. It most certainly is bullying and In this case it may well be against the law. NCLB, does allow the Secretary to grant waivers. It does not, however, allow him to use the waiver process to force states to accept or implement conditions, in this case reforms, that are not currently in NCLB. Rep. Kline (R-MN), chair of the House Education Committee recently sent a letter to Secretary Duncan requesting a formal explanation of where in the law he sees the authority to grant his vision of waivers.

    June 24, 2011
  2. Hmmm…I thought bullying was against the law?

    June 21, 2011

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