Opinion: Arnius Duncanus? By Michael J. Petrilli

Opinion: Arnius Duncanus?
By Michael J. Petrilli

Much like Commodus of ancient Rome (portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator), Arne Duncan is letting out his frustrations with Congress’s inaction over ESEA reauthorization (currently known as NCLB)—and nobody seems to like it. His warning to Congress that he will take matters into his own hands via waivers has drawn large-scale ire.

Here’s my take. First, the Secretary deserves credit for doing something to encourage ESEA reauthorization (beyond issuing groveling press releases and pleading statements). Congress is dithering and to date no amount of pressure—Presidential or otherwise—has made a difference. The Republicans in the House at least have some reasonable excuses—with all those new members still getting up to speed, and the tricky politics of the Tea Party. But Senator Harkin should be ashamed (though he doesn’t appear to be); Easter is long past and still we have no bill from his committee. It would be great to think that Duncan’s threat will finally be the jumpstart he needs to get his act together.

Second, as Rick Hess has pointed out, Duncan’s plans to tie regulatory relief to new requirements indicates an incredible amount of hubris, not to mention Constitutional ignorance. Yes, under NCLB’s waiver authority, the Secretary has a lot of room to maneuver in terms of letting states and districts escape from onerous parts of the law. But not a single provision or authority gives his Department the power to make its supplicants agree to a specific reform package in return. As a spokeswoman for the top Republican on the House education committee told Education Week: “Chairman Kline remains concerned about any initiative that would allow the secretary to pick winners and losers in the nation’s education system.”

So what was Team Duncan thinking? For an idea, we turn to NCLB-uber-advocate Kati Haycock:

While we believe targeted waivers in exchange for real movement on those issues is a good thing, regulatory relief would fit squarely in the ‘cop-out’ category.

Put in a different way, if all you do is try to fix the most onerous parts of NCLB, but don’t “move the ball down the field” in terms of reform, you are copping out.

I prefer another line of reasoning: If we reformers want to save the larger project of school reform, we need to fix NCLB now before the backlash gets even worse.

So here’s my advice to Duncan and the gang on Maryland Avenue: Go ahead with a package of regulations that would provide blanket waivers of the worst parts of the law. Make sure parameters are in place (states would still have to have accountability systems, for example). But don’t try to tie this stuff to new mandates. That will only get NCLB implementation embroiled in a lawsuit (which you’ll lose) and to acrimonious charges of imperialism (which will be well-founded).

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

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