Last week news broke that Colorado was one of 10 states to receive U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. The Peak editors promptly emailed me with a note that someone was “dying” to get my take on the development. I hope the anonymous reader not only has survived the last 4 or 5 days of anticipation but also can survive my less-than-profound observations that follow.
Gaining knowledge in some of Colorado’s local and state education systems stands apart from grasping the dense and byzantine world of federal education policies. Still, I know enough (and trust a few others enough) to be dangerous.
The shortcomings of NCLB are well documented. A great place to start is State Board of Education Chairman Bob Schaffer’s thoughts he shared earlier this year to commemorate the landmark legislation’s 10th anniversary. He served in Congress at the time and watched the sausage being made, observing directly how a good idea became a prescriptive set of federal rules with largely perverse incentives. On the other hand, NCLB’s notable bright spot is the light it shone on student subgroups (e.g., by race, gender and poverty).
Regardless, the existing form of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has outlived its usefulness. In the intensely partisan halls of Congress, few notions have received greater consensus. I (thankfully) live too far from the Beltway to break down all the reasons why no ESEA replacement has received anything approaching the momentum of broad support. For our purposes, it’s simply important to note that Obama and Duncan last fall opted to step into the void and offer states the chance to waive NCLB obligations in exchange for demonstrating a high-quality school accountability system.
The U.S. Department of Education has operated the waiver program under the unusually terse name of “ESEA Flexibility.” For Colorado at least (I can’t speak to other states), it appears to mean fewer reporting requirements and funding restrictions. Yet the main advantage our state’s department of education has touted is the advantage of using one school accountability system rather than two, which has been the case in recent years. It’s really hard to say the impact the waiver will have in schools and district offices, but to the extent it enhances focus on genuine improvement rather than bureaucratic compliance Colorado students will be truly blessed.
On the point of just how much more flexibility the waivers bring, I defer to national experts like Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute, who both questioned whether Secretary Duncan has overstepped his authority and was taken aback by “the sheer number and scope of conditions” imposed on the waiver states. Taking a similarly skeptical view of the waiver process, the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli offers a series of predictions, including:
Upon closer inspection, observers will notice that the amount of flexibility granted on accountability is tiny. Approved plans will amount to minor changes away from the AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB] system we’ve got today.
So let’s give a “golf clap” of acknowledgment for a potentially tiny shift in power away from Washington to state capitals, though the gap between the White House’s rhetoric and the Education Department’s implementation raises questions even about that.
Bottom line for Colorado schools and classrooms? Perhaps – perhaps – a little less administrative overhead, and less confusion for parents and other citizens about two different sets of school accountability labels, processes and sanctions. But if we really want to shake things up and make a powerful impact, our state’s policy makers and other education leaders should pay heed to the growing number of substantial voices demanding that education dollars follow the child.
Look forward to more on that final point from the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center in the near future.