Obama’s Waivers Plan: More Burdensome Mandates

Published October 14, 2011

Americans intuitively agree that taxpayers fund public schools in return for an important public good: educated, productive fellow citizens. But although President Barack Obama and his staff talk endlessly about public “investments” in education, education spending over the past 50 years has not paid off. A look at the president’s recent announcement to grant states waivers of provisions in the largest federal education law, No Child Left Behind, can help explain why.

First, some necessary background. Federal education spending has almost doubled since NCLB was enacted in 2001, spiking the federal share of education spending to about 10 percent. States provide 45 percent, on average, and local taxes fill in the other 45 percent.

In return for all that money–the president requested $68 billion for the Department of Education’s 2012 budget, more than twice what Congress appropriated for it 15 years ago–the feds have required much more from states and districts. Complying with federal requirements eats up 41 percent of schools’ administrative costs, the Government Accountability Office reports. Just meeting NCLB’s Title I requirements (for sending extra money to poorer districts) costs schools more than $235 million a year.

Clearly, federal involvement burdens local schools. Schools and states have been expressing frustration with this for years, turning up the volume as NCLB’s inept mandates broadened over time. President Obama cited those concerns as a prime reason for waiving certain NCLB requirements: “to avoid having their schools labeled as failures, some states, perversely, have actually had to lower their standards.”

Even with largely mediocre standards (compared to the National Assessment of Educational Progress), as many as 80 percent of schools this year could be labeled “failing” under NCLB, no matter how close they’ve come to meeting the law’s academic benchmarks. To remedy this, Obama said, the administration will waive portions of the law, especially those that require nearly all students to rate “proficient” on standardized tests by 2014, that label schools “failing” and prescribe interventions, and that limit schools’ ability to move federal money from one spending category to another.

It sounds as if the president and DOE want to remove a lot of federal education regulations. Obama himself used small-government language when promoting his plan: “We’ll be giving states more flexibility to meet high standards. … Because what works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee.”

Agreed. What the president actually did, however, is substitute his own central education mandates for NCLB’s. The administration’s waivers will reduce some federal requirements while imposing others. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear that to receive a waiver, states must accept three mandates: adopt favored education standards, evaluate teachers using student test scores, and develop internal accountability systems.

The last two of these are not bad ideas, but senators and members of Congress are right in complaining loudly about the president’s decision to usurp their lawmaking authority. In addition, the president’s plan nowhere addresses the core problem of federal education policy: its long-tentacled expansion. Slathering on education money requires, as a basic duty to voters and taxpayers, also slathering on education requirements to ensure the money isn’t ill-spent.

Those requirements, however, strangle states and local schools, thus ensuring more money is indeed wasted. The administration is not stopping the process of giving money away at too high a price; it’s just changing the price. It should stop sending money to states and local communities and let them solve the problems the federal government cannot.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.