This year, Congress has made more progress on elementary and secondary education legislation than it has since the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. But lawmakers are still not likely to get the job done. The House has passed its own version of the NCLB rewrite, and the Senate has another version, approved in committee, waiting for a floor vote. That wait could last in perpetuity. Both bills are highly partisan, and there is little chance of finding common ground between them, even if lawmakers were in the mood to look for it.
Part of the delay may lie with the waiver system set up by Education Secretary Arne Duncan two years ago. The waiver program was announced as "Plan B" when it became clear that Congress was not going to reauthorize NCLB in time to stop school districts from being punished for not meeting outdated student achievement benchmarks. Education Week's Alyson Klein recently explained the conundrum in a great piece: "The longer the waivers stay in place, the more likely those policies are to take root in state law and district practice, allowing the administration's vision for K-12 policy to flourish—without a messy legislative process that could ultimately result in a product that strays far from the Obama team's vision."
And now the waivers are going strong. The Education Department broke new ground this month by granting waivers to eight California school districts, even though the state opted not to seek a statewide waiver. These eight districts submitted a joint request for waivers as part of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), after California was denied a waiver last year.
Duncan said he had hoped to avoid granting individual districts waivers, preferring to work with the states, but he felt that the group of California districts deserved the discretion.
Republicans in Congress are worried that the Education Department's waivers have taken lawmakers completely out of the public education policymaking process. They are right about that, but the administration is also right that Congress has failed to deliver legislation that would give schools up-to-date guidelines for how to conduct themselves.
What are your general feelings about the waiver system? Is it better than nothing? How could the system operate more efficiently? Are there fundamental biases built into it? If so, what are they? How have the waivers helped foster innovation in education, if at all? How does the system compare to the department's Race to the Top competitive grant program? Could the waiver system become the Obama administration's biggest stamp on education? If so, what are the fundamental characteristics of that stamp?