The school year is ending. Parents are contemplating summer camps, sunscreen, and kid-friendly vacations, yet Congress has made precious little progress on updating the 10-year-old No Child Left Behind law. School districts are anxious; they are dangerously close to being penalized through outdated student achievement measurements that a new law would fix.
President Obama has called for lawmakers to rewrite No Child Left Behind by the start of the new school year. Now he’s giving them the second warning before sending them to the principal’s office: Do your job or we’ll do it for you.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Sunday that the administration is preparing a new set of regulations that will offer federal waivers to states that commit to certain education reforms. The regulations will give states relief from some of the more onerous requirements under No Child Left Behind while at the same time nudging them to adopt policies similar to those the administration has championed under its Race to the Top competitive grant program.
It’s a regulatory patch job for a problem that Congress is better equipped to solve. It also illustrates the sheer frustration of people in Washington who want to see policymaking in action but are stymied by the lack of willpower in Congress.
Education isn’t the only place where this is happening. A bipartisan, revenue-neutral aviation bill (you read that right—it means people in both parties agree, and it costs no taxpayer money) has been languishing on Capitol Hill all year and has endured 19 stopgap extensions since it expired in 2005. A six-year surface transportation bill is headed for the same fate, likely needing another extension at the end of September.
When it comes to education, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have given no indication that they will come even close to meeting Obama’s deadline in drafting—let alone passing—the complex law before they go home in August. The House and Senate education committees have been talking to each other for years about such a measure, but they have since stopped. It’s hard to get a clearer warning sign that the bill is going nowhere.
Even if lawmakers showed progress on a No Child Left Behind update (which also passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis), the bill could prove politically contentious if it touches sensitive sacred cows like vouchers, charter schools, or merit pay for teachers.
That leaves the administration scrambling for a regulatory scheme that accomplishes at least some of the same goals in updating the law. Even Duncan admits it’s not the perfect solution. “My top priority is to reauthorize No Child Left Behind through the legislative process,” Duncan said. On that point, at least, there is no disagreement with Congress. “I believe that the best way to address this issue is with legislation to fix No Child Left Behind and remain committed to that legislative approach,” said Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee ranking member Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
Education Department officials say they are giving lawmakers fair warning. It will take a few months to finalize the waiver criteria for states, although it’s a safe bet that the standards will look a lot like the criteria for the Race to the Top program. In theory, Congress could get on the stick and pass something before then.
Duncan also is giving the states fair warning to prepare for the waiver program. He gave a few hints at what he is looking for in his announcement, highlighting labor-management collaboration, laws that establish new teaching standards, and “the next generation of assessments that will replace today’s fill-in-the-bubble tests.”
The nuts and bolts of the waiver program may be less important than the overall message that the nation’s policymakers are lagging behind the needs of the rest of the country. “I believe that schools need relief from No Child Left Behind’s unreasonable rules. We need to make these changes on real people time, not Washington time,” Duncan said.