Most States’ Education Policies Now Subject to Obama Administration Review

Published July 18, 2012

The U.S. Department of Education has now waived No Child Left Behind for 32 states that agreed to reconfigure their education systems according to the executive branch’s preferences, with four more waiver applications under review. Washington DC also received a waiver.

NCLB governs most federal K-12 spending and mandates. The 32 waiver states are now free from, among other regulations, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) mandates, which required states to make every student proficient in reading and math by 2014. The increasing targets on this requirement would have labeled most schools “failing” by 2012.

“We’re in a horrible state of limbo—a very frightening and unclear state of limbo,” said Sandy Kress, a lawyer who helped craft NCLB. “You now have some distorted version of the law in place, which varies from state to state.”

New Federal Mandates
The latest states to receive waivers include Virginia and Alaska, even though they have not adopted nationwide Common Core education standards the administration had suggested were necessary for a waiver. Virginia’s waiver says the state will “fully align” its standards with the Core, a grade-by-grade list of what children must learn in math and English.

The Obama administration also requires waiver states to base teacher evaluations partly on their students’ standardized test scores. The law nowhere allows the DOE to require policy changes for waivers, although many states, including Wisconsin and Washington, had to revise their proposed changes before DOE granted them waivers.

“It’s a big game of the feds demanding their favorite inputs without legislative authority, and the states are agreeing in varying ways,” Kress said. “It’s posing a lot of controversy in these various states.”

State autonomy was compromised long before the waiver process, said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

“[States] sacrificed [autonomy] when they first started taking major federal education money in the 1960s,” McCluskey said. “Many also gave away their right to set their own curricular standards when they scrambled for Race to the Top funds. Perhaps the big loss is that states’ representatives in Washington gave up their constitutionally delegated powers by letting President Obama, for all intents and purposes, unilaterally rewrite the law.”

‘Radically Repurposed’
Honest observers could have predicted from its inception that NCLB would end in confusion, said Andy Porter, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in education.

“Far too many schools simply can’t reach this goal [of 100 percent proficiency],” Porter said.   

Though NCLB grants the Education Secretary the power to waive its provisions, the waivers have no force of law, said Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

“[NCLB] is not dead; it’s just been radically repurposed,” Hess said. “Several of NCLB’s sillier elements may have been largely neutralized, but the law continues to be a threat that fundamentally alters the relationship between Uncle Sam and the states.”  


Image by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats.