Just like your favorite sitcom, Congressional Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a will they/won’t they relationship for eight years over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Could the 114th Congress be the season where they finally get together? That’s what some ardent, right-leaning ESEA watchers (like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and AEI’s Rick Hess) are hoping, given their general fandom of Senator Lamar Alexander’s current approach. But despite hopes for consensus, Alexander’s draft bill actually makes it harder to reconcile the largest issue on the table: the federal role in education.
Let me explain. New hope for an ESEA compromise isn’t just driven by ideology. On the policy surface, it also appears that the stage could be set for a deal. Everyone agrees on a more limited set of federal requirements than NCLB. For example, both political right and left think that states (not the feds) should play a starring role in creating school rating systems based on performance, graduation rates, and other measures; identifying low-performing schools; and designing and implementing interventions to improve them.
In a speech to chief state school officers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan finally unveiled guidance for states seeking to renew their waivers from No Child Left Behind, all of which (except Illinois’) are set to expire at the end of the school year. These renewal guidelines (see the official guidance and letter to states here for the nitty-gritty details) are critical, because they are the last remaining leverage point for this administration to urge states to stay the course on some of its key priorities, from college- and career-ready standards and tests to new teacher evaluation systems that take into account students’ learning. And with Duncan and Co.’s time and capacity quickly expiring, managing the implementation of waivers is one of the few big remaining items on the administration’s to-do list.
While I could go on (and on) about the finer points of the waiver renewal guidelines, here are three big takeaways—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and what they mean for NCLB waivers moving forward (if you want a longer take, check out these recaps, with reactions from the field, from Politics K-12and Huffington Post).
The good. Unlike the last round of waivers and waiver extensions, states will be able to get flexibility for three or even four years, in some cases (something I suggested that the Department consider). While longer waivers pose risks, especially if states are making poor choices with their newfound flexibility and seeing marginal improvement in student learning, these policy risks are outweighed by how the additional time will improve the waiver process—and possibly, the chances for a reauthorization before 2019 (seventeen yearsafter NCLB’s passage), when the last of these new waivers could expire. In this light, it’s a win-win for everybody: baking in Duncan’s preferred policies well into the next administration’s tenure, providing states with the policy stability they’ve been craving, and giving a new administration some breathing room to develop their own policies and approaches toward reauthorization and flexibility. Continue reading →