Does the secretary of Education really want to fix NCLB?

Arne Duncan, Education, Common Core
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Last week, the House narrowly passed a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that would help fix a law that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has described as “broken.” Earlier this year, Duncan had declared, “I believe we can work together — Democrats and Republicans — to move beyond the tired, prescriptive No Child Left Behind law.” Even in a divided Washington, that seems to be happening. The House’s Student Success Act would retain NCLB’s regular testing and data transparency while putting an end to Washington’s efforts to mandate school improvement. Meanwhile, the Senate looks like it’s close to passing its own bipartisan bill, the Every Child Achieves Act, which makes similar corrections.

{mosads}This is all good news, because NCLB’s problems have only grown with time. In a fit of aspirational overreach, NCLB required that 100 percent of students in every school should be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014. In schools that fail to meet the target (which is most of the nation’s schools), states are to impose a series of federally mandated remedies. In a novel turn, Duncan offered to grant states relief from portions of the law, but only on the condition that states promise to enact a slate of preferred educational priorities (like federally preferred teacher evaluation systems and adoption of the Common Core or a federally approved alternative). The president and Duncan have insisted that the waivers were a last-ditch response to congressional “inaction.”

Given that, you’d think Duncan would be eager to see NCLB’s failings addressed. On major legislation, there are always going to be honest differences of opinion — on things like the House’s decision to let federal Title I funds for low-income children follow students to public charter schools. There’s a time-honored way to prepare the ground for fruitful negotiation on these things. This is when a Cabinet secretary says, “Congratulations to the House. It’s good to see the process moving forward. There are provisions in the bill that I don’t think the president will accept. But I look forward to seeking common ground.” After all, just last year, Duncan professed, “I’m willing to help in any way that will be constructive to moving forward in a bipartisan way.”

That’s not how Duncan opted to respond to the passage of the Student Success Act. Instead, he proclaimed, “House Republicans have chosen to take a bad bill and make it even worse.” This month, right after opining that “education always has been a bipartisan cause,” Duncan averred that the Student Success Act “would represent a major step backwards for our nation and its children.” Of the House proposal to allow federal dollars to follow low-income children to public district or charter schools, he’s declared that Republicans are “moving money away from districts that need it” and that “It’s like reverse Robin Hood. You’re stealing from the poor to give to the rich.”

That all seems a bit out-of-step with his Washington Post op-ed from earlier this year, in which Duncan proclaimed, “I respect my Republican colleagues deeply, and their care for this country’s children is real.” Of course, this is the same Duncan who went to Capitol Hill in 2013 and dismissed Republican concerns as “economically foolish,” “morally indefensible” and tantamount to “education malpractice,” and then, two months later, said, “I’m spending time every day, including this morning, talking to Republican members of the House and Senate to try and encourage them to be supportive. … This should absolutely be a non-political, non-ideological investment.”

Is Duncan just tone-deaf? Or is there something else on his mind? After all, for all its failings, No Child Left Behind has allowed Duncan to mandate state policy without the inconvenience of legislation. And he may be reluctant to let that go.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Arne Duncan Charter school Common Core Department of Education Education Every Child Achieves Act NCLB No Child Left Behind Act Student Success Act
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