Policy Documents

Research & Commentary: No Child Left Behind Waivers

September 5, 2011

In July 2011, Education Secretary Arne Duncan ignited a media and political firestorm by announcing his intention to grant waivers to states that could not meet No Child Left Behind requirements if Congress did not reauthorize the federal education law by fall.

NCLB allows the secretary of education to waive some of the law’s requirements, but Duncan added his own extra-legal twist: States seeking a waiver must first adopt unspecified policy changes the Obama administration approves. In August, Duncan followed through on his promise by offering Montana the first waiver, telling other states he’d soon outline conditions for receiving them.

Commentators and politicians from left to right roundly criticized Duncan’s move as adding uncertainty to education policy. Those favoring centralized education worry the move will push states to adopt market-based reforms the Obama administration condones, such as merit pay for teachers and using student test results in firing and hiring decisions.

Reform-minded educators and policy analysts contend Duncan’s actions exemplify the administration’s preference for top-down, centralized education policy instead of allowing states to develop their own creative solutions for poor education performance. They also express concern over the administration’s preference for bypassing Congress and the nation’s lawmaking procedure through the use of waivers and other administrative agency orders, noting this creates confusion among states and gives further leverage to special interests while taking power away from individuals and families.

The following documents offer more information about NCLB waivers.

Why States Should Refuse Duncan’s NCLB Waivers
Standardized test critic Monty Neill says granting states waivers on No Child Left Behind will likely increase the importance of standardized tests, an outcome he decries in this Washington Post column. He calls on states and local groups to resist. Neither the current testing mandates nor waivers will help our broken system, Neill writes, and both should be replaced with fewer federal mandates and less emphasis on test results.

Don’t Cut Standards for No Child Left Behind
The Boston Globe editorializes that waiving No Child Left Behind requirements “could be a motivation killer” for educators, since the law’s public testing measures push teachers and schools to educate kids. Duncan’s reforms would measure policies against the administration’s preferences rather than the results those policies generate, the editorial says. That makes him seem soft on student progress, the Globe observes.

Duncan Ready to Use Waivers to Evade NCLB
This Washington Times article provides background on Arne Duncan’s waivers plan, explaining the divide between houses of Congress preventing that body from passing a reauthorization of the law. Congress has been focusing on health care, economic stimulus, financial services regulation, and recently the debt limit, eroding its time or inclination to revamp the nation’s largest education law.

The Rule of Waivers
The Obama administration has increasingly used waivers, including those on No Child Left Behind, to give bureaucracies more power and legislative-like authority, writes David Boaz of the Cato Institute. This makes agencies into legislator, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, a clear violation of the rule of law and the nation’s system of government.

The Annotated No Child Left Behind Waiver Conversation
Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners pokes holes in the alarmist rhetoric Arne Duncan uses to justify his waivers of No Child Left Behind requirements for states, reviewing a New York Times article on the event. Rotherham disputes Duncan’s claims about how many schools will qualify as failing under NCLB, notes the great number of loopholes already available to schools and states under the law, and discusses how schools, districts, and states have great incentives to avoid accountability measures like those embedded in the federal law.

President Obama Rewrites the No Child Left Behind Act
Although there is no doubt No Child Left Behind needs repair and presidential administrations previously have used waivers to alleviate unrealistic conditions on states in meeting federal laws, notes Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, the Obama administration’s use of waivers amounts to an administrative-branch rewrite of federal law. This increases presidential control over education and other domestic policy, damages the separation of powers, and further reduces parents’ control over their children’s education, Whitehurst writes.

Look Out, Voluntarism! Here They Come Again!
Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom explains how attaching requirements to No Child Left Behind waivers will lead to a national curriculum. He notes the administration’s favored Common Core standards are the only ones that fit the requirements for states receiving waivers, and he reveals that the Department of Education is funding development of standardized tests to go with the Common Core.

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 http://news.heartland.org/education, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at http://www.heartland.org, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at www.policybot.org.

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 jpullmann@heartland.org.