Montana Receives ‘No Child’ Waiver as Congress Moves to Reauthorize the Law

Published August 17, 2011

Dissatisfied with the pace of No Child Left Behind reauthorization in Congress, the Department of Education announced it will waive some of the law’s penalties for individual states, provided the states make unspecified policy changes in return. Montana has already received a waiver, after declaring it would ignore NCLB requirements this year. 

“The president has directed us to move forward with an administrative process to provide flexibility within the law for states and districts that are willing to embrace reform,” said Melody Barnes, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. 

Quid Pro Quo
To receive a waiver, a state must implement education reforms the Obama administration prefers. Education Secretary Arne Duncan promised to publish waiver requirements in September, noting only that waivers will be granted to states “that are prepared to address our educational challenges.” He has not said what steps Montana will take in exchange for its waiver. 

The waivers contrast proposals put forth by the House Education and the Workforce Committee and congressional conservatives to provide an alternative to NCLB.

The Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act (H.R. 1891) and the State and Local Funding Flexibility Act (H.R. 2445) would provide states more flexibility with NCLB funding and eliminate and consolidate ineffective NCLB programs. The Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act (H.R. 2514), would allow states to opt out of the law entirely. 

The Obama administration is instead pushing for full NCLB reauthorization with increased education funding, and says it plans to issue waivers until then. Ranking congressional Democrats, including Senate education committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), have said the House reauthorization bills will gain no traction in the Senate. 

Worries about Constitutionality, Rule of Law
States are increasingly expressing concern about NCLB’s fast-approaching 2014 deadline when the law requires them to have all children rating “proficient” in math and English on state tests. Most states set student proficiency targets along a curve, with lower benchmarks early on and steep jumps later, expecting Congress to change NCLB before 2014.

The Obama administration’s yet-to-be specified conditions for receiving waivers have some education experts on both sides of the political spectrum concerned about federal overreach.

“There has been nothing good about this waivers threat—no details, more expected arm-twisting to get states to adopt national curriculum standards, and worst of all, a blatant disregard for constitutional separation of powers,” said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. “But this is what we get for ignoring the Constitution and letting Washington into education in the first place. Once the overall rule of law dies, it’s dead everywhere.” 

NCLB does allow the Department of Education to issue waivers, but does not allow to the DOE to tie them to changes in state education policies. 

“The Obama administration’s waivers go way beyond the NCLB waivers granted by the Bush administration to the extent that it violates the separation of powers and constitutes back-door lawmaking by the executive branch,” said Bill Evers, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and former U.S. assistant secretary of education. “Using waivers to lock in national curriculum is coercive central planning.” 

Better Plan: School Choice
Other reformers argue the waivers prove that government cannot produce meaningful education reform. 

“The entire waiver fiasco underscores once again that Americans cannot rely upon governments at any level—federal, state, or local—to fix government-run public schools,” said Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. “The Obama administration’s issuance of waivers to states is frank admission that the whole notion of government-inspired self-improvement of public schools is a dismal failure.”   

Izumi argues the nation’s schoolchildren would be better served if the administration supported school choice measures like those newly implemented in Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin instead of trying to control public education through NCLB.

“The only solution for parents of children attending failing government schools is to give them an immediate exit ticket in the form of a voucher scholarship, a tuition tax credit, or some other school-choice tool,” Izumi said, rather than “wasting everyone’s time with more ‘trust-the-government’ hokum.”