America / Education

How NCLB Waivers Make a Bad Situation Worse

With the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on the horizon, the Obama administration has complicated the issue by creating a process by where states may apply for waivers for the restrictions implemented by this law. While the standards implemented by NCLB are counterproductive, the way the waivers are distributed may end up doing more harm than good.

Today at the Thomas B. Fordham institute, Assistant Secretary Carmel Martin explained the rationale behind the granting of the waivers. In a competitive format, the Secretary will review proposed education plans from any State that applies for a waiver. For whichever State that proposes a plan that the Secretary of Education thinks “will improve student experience”, a waiver from NCLB standards will be granted. The legal foundation, Ms. Martin explained, is provided for in the NCLB legislation itself.

In this explanation, the fundamental flaw of NCLB is on full display. Instead of standards implemented by an unwieldy bureaucracy, waivers will be awarded to states that satisfy the whims of the Secretary. While I do not question the Department of Education’s good intentions, I do question their ability to process and synthesize all of the diverse factors that makes each state of the Union a unique and special case.

With regard to the first round of waivers granted, Ms. Martin declared that since not all the states applied, this confirmed her opinion that the NCLB standards were generally identical the standards wanted by the States. If this were true, one must wonder if it is really necessary to have the Federal government enforce what the State governments fully intend on doing themselves.

As much as it may be said that NCLB is committed to reducing the achievement gap, the law misses a crucial point that undermines the entire effort. The best persons to be held accountable for student performance are not Federal regulators, nor state governments, but parents. When I asked the panel how parents could be empowered through NCLB or the waiver granting process, the reply from Mr. Michael Petrilli was that the two issues are totally separate. Sadly, parental involvement simply is not relevant to the debate.

While conservatives see the light of decentralizing education away from the federal government, they often fail to follow through on the principle. Think of each elementary school student in this country. Who is the best person to determine standards by which that child is to be assessed? Arne Duncan? A state legislator? Or the parents?  As much as the Department might insist that it’s the states that set policy, NCLB will always add a caveat to the federal governments rhetoric: “we want to help…or else.”

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