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Why Duncan Waiver Proposal Isn't Breaking NCLB Logjam

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You have to give Team Duncan credit for keeping at it with this whole reauthorization thing, whether you agree with them or not on the substance (NCLB is having a dire negative effect on public education) or the tactics (they're calling it a "flexibility package" but I call it a "recess reauthorization").

It's long been clear that Duncan could waive some of the NCLB provisions -- after all, he's been granting waivers to states all along. Blanket waivers would be something slightly new, but if they were limited to the most obvious elements -- the 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency, for example -- that'd be nothing to bat an eye at. Overdue reauthorizations aren't necessarily a big deal, either. It's not like the appropriators won't fund programs with expired authorizations. New strings? That's another matter.

Indeed, five days in and there's still pretty much no one besides weasely state and district administrators clamoring for relief who will admit to liking Duncan's Plan B "recess reauthorization" -- though Patrick Eduflack Riccards comes close. Even more important, it's not at all clear that the idea has done anything to jumpstart reauthorization talks on the Hill, either (the underlying goal of the Duncan proposal).

Right from the start, the responses have been pretty negative from the Hill -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- as well as from the chattering class, as you can see from this roundup: Will States Accept Duncan-Style Reforms for NCLB Relief? EdWeek:  "He offered so few details about what that relief would look like that the reporters spent much of the call flummoxed over what the news actually was"... Duncan's Disregard for the Constitution Rick Hess:  "Our earnest Secretary of Education, who famously (and bizarrely) promised Congress a billion-dollar edu-bonus if it reauthorized NCLB by the administration's deadline and to the President's satisfaction, was back at it on Friday"... Duncan Wants to Use NCLB Sanctions to Force More Education Reform Measures FireDogLake: "This just sounds like another version of Race to the Top, only a bit worse"... What's Plan C Anyway? Eduwonk:  "Congress doesn't like being preempted - and there is, of course, a natural tension between two co-equal branches of government.  But there are also a host of policy issues at play in this specific instance"... "Give me the money or I shoot my foot!" and other political theories of education reform Sherman Dorn: "If I had a crystal ball, I would guess this trial balloon will sink ignominiously by the end of the summer"... Arnius Duncanus? Mike Petrilli: "Duncan's plans to tie regulatory relief to new requirements indicates an incredible amount of tone-deafness, not to mention Constitutional ignorance"...Give Us What We Want Or You're Dead Jim Horn:  "There is a time bomb in your basement, and it is set to explode in 2014, maybe sooner.  Only two people have the ability to disarm it"...

The followup reaction in recent days hasn't been much more encouraging. NEA president Dennis Van Roekel came out strongly against the idea, calling it "more of the same bad patchwork quilt of disparities in our education system." House Democrat George Miller criticized the plan at yesterday's CAP event, according to EdWeek (Rep. Miller Not a Fan of Duncan's NCLB Waiver Plan) as did AFT president Randi Weingarten, who said a waiver approach "creates a disincentive to get the law reauthorized (at about 44:20).  Chairman Kline noted on NPR that Race To The Top was already one giant waiver and NCLB didn't need to be turned into another.

Indeed, Duncan's saber-rattling seems to have done little more than piss off the Hill. Indeed, members of both parties indicated in their remarks that -- publicly at least -- they're not pleased with Duncan's taunts. Maybe Duncan's team thinks there's nothing to lose, given how annoyed they already are. Perhaps the White House is angling to blame Congress for its inaction on education reform, a strategy that hits Senate Dems as well as House Republicans.

It's a double whammy -- folks either don't like the idea of waivers, or they don't like the idea of attaching Race To The Top-like strings (see FireDogLake and Hess), or both. Not even NCLB's harshest critics -- the Diane Ravitches of the world -- have come out in favor of the waiver plan. They don't like NCLB, but they don't like -- or trust -- the Duncan team to come up with something that they'd like much better.

This impatience to do something is all the more fascinating given how few real-world results we've seen from Race To The Top so far and how lackluster the Department's implementation of SIG has been. And that's the main problem here. If it was simple regulatory relief that Duncan was offering, that might be one thing. But Duncan et al are selling their Race to the Top agenda as part of the deal and no one knows yet whether Race is going to work. The tough work of making sure that Race generates some real changes has barely begun with state implementation visits (Department Officials Visit Massachusetts to Learn About Race Implementation), and House Republicans are moving ahead with their piecemeal approach. 

A former Senate education aide, Russo blogs at This Week In Education and his new book about the effort to fix broken schools just came out last month.