The Obama administration's announced No Child Left Behind waivers are drawing suspicion and fire from the right as states wait to hear what conditions the waivers will require.
Since Congress hasn't overhauled the nation's key education policy, which has been overdue for reauthorization since 2007 and is now widely considered out of date and "onerous"—the most common word used to describe its requirements—Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced earlier this week that he will move forward with granting waivers to states from the law's key provisions "in return for reform." The law, the central tenant of which is that all students test at grade level in math and reading by 2014, does allow the secretary to grant waivers, but the waivers-for-changes idea is already under scrutiny by Republican members of Congress worried the administration is trying to circumvent the legislative branch. Further, a June analysis by the Congressional Research Service suggests it is not clear whether or not such conditional waivers would stand up to a legal challenge.
Several states have applied for waivers, even though details of the waivers' requirements will not be made public until September. And it is the requirements that are troubling the right, because they are likely to include adopting college- and career-ready standards for what students should learn. Some conservative education policy analysts are raising legal questions, suspicious the government is inching closer to dipping its hand into mandating curricula.
The reason? The easiest way for states to adopt high standards acceptable to the Department of Education would likely be to sign onto the Common Core standards, which lay out what students should know each year of school, kindergarten through 12th grade.
The Common Core is a state-led effort developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But the perception is that when the Department of Education has required "college- and career-ready standards" to participate in grant programs like Race to the Top in 2010, it really meant that states had to adopt the Common Core. This has caused states-rights advocates to call the Common Core a federal initiative tantamount to the Education Department dictating standards and tests, which it is legally not allowed to do.
"This financial support of the Common Core is coming very close to crossing that line," says Lindsey Burke, education policy analyst at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, referring to the Race to the Top grant money. Burke is worried the Common Core will essentially become national standards. "And now we're seeing the administration suggest that the same will be the case for the waivers. It's definitely problematic."
Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, takes issue with calling Common Core "national standards," since they were developed by the states. But he says the government's role should include making sure students are ready for college or the career field and helping states get to that point. Many states have had low standards or did not measure the achievement gap between students of differing racial and income backgrounds, issues No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001 to address. And though that law required states to have standards, the level of standards was up to the states. "It is naïve to think that a student who goes to school in Texas should have different standards than a kid who goes to school in Louisiana," he says.
Currently, 44 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have signed on to Common Core, indicating that they plan to use the program's standards—or are already moving toward doing so—once the testing is fully developed to assess how students measure up to the standards, in 2014 or 2015. Traditionally conservative states Texas, Virginia, Nebraska, Alaska, and Montana, as well as Minnesota, have declined to sign on so far, though Montana's superintendent of public instruction announced earlier this month that she is recommending the state adopt the Common Core.
According to Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, there will be an easy way to test whether or not the Department of Education is really pressuring states to specifically take up the Common Core: Virginia.
Wilhoit says he's looked closely at Virginia's standards. They are good, Wilhoit says, and they have been vetted by the higher education community. But Virginia's education board has said it is against adopting the Common Core. "Is Virginia going to be eligible [for a waiver]?" Wilhoit says the question will be. "And if they say no, then I think there's a real question mark."
And it appears the administration may pass that test. Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that Duncan assured Virginia's education department their refusal to adopt the Common Core wouldn't disqualify the state.
Even so, the buzz that standards may be tied to waivers has some of the groups who support the Common Core, like the right-leaning Fordham Institute, nervous states may feel pressured. "To now say if you want relief from No Child Left Behind, you have to sign onto these standards or other college- and career-ready standards—wink wink," says Michael Petrilli, Fordham's executive vice president, "creates this dynamic that resonates on the right, where people say, 'See, this is another example of the Obama administration usurping states rights and putting us under the yoke of Uncle Sam.'"
Petrilli is worried that any more pushing or incentivizing from Washington could spur conservative states to feel trapped in the program or to simply back out. And he questions the need, with nearly 90 percent of states already saying they are on board. "I just can't understand why the administration doesn't walk away from this and declare victory," he says.
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