12/05/2012 01:34 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

The NCLB Reauthorization We Should Be Doing Now

As the lame duck Congress wraps up and energy builds towards a new Congress and a second Obama term in office, I can't help but wishing that reauthorizing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was something that was on everyone's first order of business for January and February.

Instead, NCLB reauthorization is off most folks' radars. The states are into the woods with their NCLB waivers. Duncan is chasing behind them with chiding letters reminding them of their vague promises to uphold the spirit of NCLB and keep non-statutory obligations they made in their waiver applications. It's a mess, and it's going to get worse.

To be fair, the same thing got done to the DREAMers, who are now in the same kind of political and policy limbo as NCLB. And the Obama folks didn't know if they'd get another term, and nobody knew whether the NCLB reauthorization that came out of the 2010-2012 Congress would be any good.

But still, the Obama administration could have built momentum around the need to revamp NCLB during 2010 and 2011 -- without going along with the sky-is-falling stuff coming from the states about AYP failure rates.

They had Obamacare and ARRA (the Stimulus). They didn't need another domestic win. The teachers didn't need waivers, particularly. The White House could still have run against Congress. Then, they'd now be in the driver's seat.

Instead, the Obama administration made two big mistakes:

The first was overstating the negative impact of NCLB (in terms of AYP failure rates and states "racing to the bottom." AYP failure rates were never as uniformly high as Team Duncan kept saying they were, and as many states raised standards as lowered them in the years since NCLB was enacted.

The second mistake was going along with the waiver scheme, which undercut any sense of urgency on the Hill in terms of doing a real reauthorization and also created the crazy-quilt system of individual state waivers that makes NCLB look simple and uniform.

What I still don't know or understand: What kind of wizardry/groupthink caused this utterly avoidable outcome to happen? Who was the most persuasive or effective proponent of the waiver scheme outside the Administration, and who was the main proponent among senior staff at the White House or USDE who went along?

What waiver enthusiasts still don't know or understand is how troublesome and chaotic it's going to be implementing waivers -- which aren't statutory and could be changed by a new Administration four years from now -- and just how unenthusiastic the new Congress is going to be to fund a jumble of different programs and rating systems.