The nation's now unpopular key education policy saw more action in Washington this year than it did since it passed in 2001.
No Child Left Behind has been overdue for a rewrite since 2007, and education experts agree final reform needs to come from Congress. But this year, the real action came from the executive branch.
Out of frustration with congressional inaction, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan took matters into their own hands this fall and outlined a waiver program for any states willing to embrace certain "reforms."
These include college- and career-ready standards, an accountability process for rewarding schools that show progress, and as a system to evaluate and support teachers and administrators. In exchange, states will be free from key provisions in NCLB, like adequate yearly progress goals and the requirement that all students test at grade level in math and reading by 2014. States who get waivers will also have more flexibility in spending certain funds.
Republicans in Congress called the conditional waiver idea an end-run around the legislative branch. The Department of Education is legally allowed to grant waivers, but critics say the waters are murkier when those waivers require action in return.
"Legally, they are suspect," says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the conservative Fordham Institute, who says he believes a state that doesn't want to implement the conditions could still successfully sue for a waiver anyway.
Though Petrilli was an early critic of the waivers, he now sees them as positive. "I don't think you'll find anyone in the country who thinks that adequate yearly progress as designed 10 years ago is the best way to figure out if a school is failing or not," he says. "This is really opening the doors to let states have much more say and be much more innovative and creative in how they craft their accountability systems."
But education lobbyist Ellin Nolan is concerned the waivers will cause an administrative nightmare. "It's a huge job for the department to manage all these waivers, which are really a hodgepodge of accountability plans in all the states," she says. Eleven states have already applied, and several more have indicated they will.
"Plus the oversight of [No Child Left Behind] for those states that don't choose to do waivers," Nolan adds. "It's going to be quite a mess."
Nolan believes the goal of the waivers was to inspire legislative reforms. "At first they thought it would spur the Congress on, and I think it did," Nolan says. "It spurred them as far as they could go, but they haven't been able to get there."
Now it seems the waivers may have done exactly the opposite.
"In an odd way, for someone like [Democratic Rep.] George Miller," Nolan says, "the waivers probably look better than a bill that's going to come out of the Education and Workforce Committee," of which Miller is the ranking member.
Petrilli agrees. The waiver process "seems to have put that process totally on ice—it took the wind out of its sails," he says. "The administration now seems happier with its waiver process than it is with the kind of law that would come out of this [Republican-led] Congress."
The chairman of the House committee, Rep. John Kline, has led the way on a package of piece-by-piece bills, rather than addressing education policy in one multi-issue bill. The committee has passed a few bills, including one expanding charter schools that passed the full House.
The Senate aimed a bit higher, giving education experts the most reason to hope.
Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin proposed a rare bipartisan bill to replace the entire No Child Left Behind law. Some Republicans complained the legislation still allowed the government too big a role in education, but others—including civil rights leaders and former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings—thought it was too much of a departure from accountability. Critics fear such a law would undermine the progress made under No Child Left Behind in closing achievement gaps between high- and low-income students and schools.