When asked about Congress’ approach to addressing ESEA, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) has repeatedly noted that he’d like to get up to three smaller bills done over the summer before tackling bigger issues.
But this congressional proclivity to punt on big issues is matched only by the Department of Education, which announced recently that that Secretary Arne Duncan would use his waiver authority to relieve some states of ESEA’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) mandate, if they are willing to accept more of the Department of Education’s conditions.
This is a dangerous course.
First, it relieves Congress of the pressure needed to address and fix ESEA and chart a comprehensive course for our nation’s schools. If no waivers are granted and every school district doesn’t reach proficiency by 2014 as required by the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), it’s likely that most Congressional representatives will have a failing school in their district – something that wouldn't sit well with their constituents.
Second, it allows the Executive Branch to arbitrarily bypass Congress and place new conditions on fulfilling NCLB. The waiver authority was not written into law to create a window for the Executive Branch to insert new accountability burdens. It was added to relieve states of existing ineffective or burdensome mandates that impeded a state from achieving high quality outcomes. When using the waiver authority, the Secretary must show how “the waiving of these requirements will increase the quality of student instruction and improve student academic achievement” and not how new conditions will achieve the goal.
Based on the Department’s approach, we could see a new cycle of conditions imposed on states every election cycle. This is far too frequent for the stability in both policy and practice that states and localities need for accountability measures to be effective.
If the waiver is used, it should be applied to all states because the Department believes that the existing policy is ineffective. If the Department by admission of granting the waiver believes that the policy it is waiving is ineffective, then it would be bad public policy and immoral for that same Department to leave students in any state subject to that ineffective policy only because the state leaders have yet to kiss the ring.
Finally, and more emblematic of federal officials’ small solutions for big problems, the waiver doesn’t fix our national education policy. It is another kick down the road, leaving states, parents, teachers and students to find their own path to providing all children an opportunity to learn.
Our peers with AAA ratings will tell us that the U.S. democracy and economy will not grow with approaches that celebrate structural changes over substantives changes. We must honestly assess what is keeping us flat.
A nation’s education system provides the long-term fuel for economic growth. AAA nations understand this and have focused on comprehensive approaches to address issues of equity and excellence through the system that touches the futures of just about every one of their citizens: the public education system.
So here’s what needs to be done here:
Institute a more equitable federal tax system by following billionaire Warren Buffet’s advice and raising taxes on him and those like him.
Reauthorize NCLB to articulate a comprehensive federal 2020 plan to provide all students a fair and substantive opportunity to learn.
As a part of a three-prong fiscal accountability plan, a) evaluate how states are distributing existing resources to ensure smart and educationally sound spending, b) ensure the equitable distribution of existing resources, and c) target a substantive percentage of new tax revenues specifically toward investments in our education and job-creation infrastructure.
If we ever get beyond our arrogance of power, we will see the downgrade of our credit rating for what it really is: not just an economic indicator, but a signal of our country’s declining capacity to solve the big issues that will affect generations to come.
John H. Jackson is the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education a former Senior Policy Advisor in the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education