After offering 16 states waivers of No Child Left Behind requirements in exchange for implementing policy changes he prefers, Education Secretary Arne Duncan publicly floated the idea of offering similar waivers to individual school districts in states that do not receive or apply for them.
Many states have yet to apply for a waiver, and several, including Texas and California, have rejected the offer outright, arguing the federal strings associated with them would cost too much and cede too much control to the federal government.
In a March interview, Duncan said the U.S. Department of Education could offer waivers to school districts in “less functional” states. A DOE spokesman said the department is currently offering no further details.
“[District waivers] are a bizarre notion and represent a really troubling extension of Secretary Duncan’s effort to micromanage the nation’s schools through the waiver process,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “While Duncan could claim vestiges of precedent for his state waivers, this is truly unprecedented. It really does start to turn the Secretary of Education into the nation’s superintendent.”
‘Shattered Rule of Law’
Individual district waivers would be legally impossible, said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Education Reform.
“Legally, school districts are creatures of states, not the federal government, so Washington issuing waivers to districts would violate the Constitution,” he said. “But federal education laws are already a gross violation of the Constitution—there is no enumerated education power—making this just another step away from the already shattered rule of law.”
A better option, McCluskey said, would be to eliminate federal intervention.
“At the very least,” he said, “let states that declare they want to run their own systems keep the taxpayer money that would otherwise have gone to Washington.”
District waivers would also stretch school districts’ already limited capabilities, Hess said.
“Not only would this create an enormous paper burden for local districts, but it would ensure that leadership time and energy, which is already at a premium, would be narrowly focused on appeasing [the Education Department’s] demands,” Hess said.
Instead, Hess said, the federal government should “scour” federal law and regulations to find and eliminate already burdensome requirements on school districts.
Image by the Center for American Progress.