Research & Commentary: Strings-Attached NCLB Waivers

Published October 10, 2011

President Barack Obama has announced his administration will grant states waivers from enforcement of the federal No Child Left Behind law, contingent on their adopting specific policy changes favored by the administration but not allowed under the enabling law. These include using student test scores when evaluating teachers, developing a plan to improve the state’s worst 15 percent of schools, and implementing a national program of “college and career-ready” education standards.

Many governors and state departments of education greeted the news with sighs of relief and promises to apply for waivers. Schools consistently labeled “failing” under NCLB must provide services such as extra tutoring, and if those interventions fail they are subjected to more stringent measures such as converting to a charter, closing, or firing teachers and administrators.

Obama’s announcement, however, pleased few legislators or interest groups on either side of the aisle. Teacher unions expressed strong disfavor at including students’ achievement in teacher evaluations, while Democratic and Republican legislators both complained attaching requirements to the waivers was an unconstitutional usurpation of Congress’s authority by the president.

Advocates of parent-empowering reforms note NCLB has vastly increased the federal government’s power over education without increasing student achievement; they want the law scrapped entirely. Instead of perpetuating the frustration federal involvement has caused, they argue, Congress should truly relieve it by significantly scaling back the federal involvement and returning power to states and local schools.

The following documents examine the issues behind the Obama administration’s waiver plan.

Abolish the Education Department? Abandoned Idea Gets New Life
The obvious failures of No Child Left Behind’s centralized approach have sparked calls for the federal government to get out of K-12 education completely, reports Fox News. Conservatives have promised eliminating the Department of Education before, however, yet it has almost doubled its budget in the past 10 years. Still, schools and communities are so annoyed with NCLB’s one-size-fits-all federal provisions that the idea could gain traction.

No Child Left Behind Opt-out Ignites Arguments
No Child Left Behind’s requirements have caused near-panic in many schools that have to address significant problems such as poverty and nonnative English speakers, reports The Tennessean. State educators reacted with relief to hearing Tennessee will request a waiver with a plan to have schools compare this year’s test scores against their previous test scores rather than attempt to achieve total proficiency by 2014.

President Obama’s Revision of No Child Left Behind Is More of the Same
Attaching administration-favored conditions to No Child Left Behind waivers means the president is merely substituting one set of onerous federal requirements for another, writes Charing Ball in the Atlanta Post. As a compromise between heavy-handed federal accountability and states’ rights, it fails miserably, she says.

The Waivers Are Here
The National Journal convenes a panel to discuss Obama’s No Child Left Behind waivers plan. Notably, the Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn says the inclusion of a quid pro quo of contentious requirements creates at least as many problems as the waivers solve. Finn also takes Obama to task for being overtly political by catering to a large interest group to retain its votes. Sandy Kress, who helped write NCLB, says Obama’s plan contains three serious challenges: loosening accountability provisions, making required reforms stick, and congressional opposition.

Obama’s Ill-Advised NCLB Waivers
Any relief Obama’s No Child Left Behind waivers offer will quickly be destroyed by “debilitating federal shackles,” writes The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke on National Review Online. Increasing central power over education always increases red tape and, thus, impedes the pursuit of excellence.

Arne and Obama Gut School Accountability
The administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers represent a “full retreat on accountability,” writes RiShawn Biddle at Dropout Nation. Their amorphous nature will let states put together almost any plan for a waiver, allowing them to take federal education dollars and run. It also allows lawmakers and educators to avoid addressing the nation’s education crisis and a public debate about the need for cohesive, effective legislation that directly addresses it, he writes.

Senator Rubio to Secretary Duncan: Cajoling States to Adopt Obama Education Reforms Unconstitutional
The executive branch has no authority to rewrite No Child Left Behind when issuing states waivers of that law, writes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The senator also expresses his concern over the education department establishing a national curriculum by forcing states to accept it to obtain a waiver.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].