August 19, 2011 | Commentary on Education, K-12 Federal Policy Issues

No Child Left Behind by Executive Overreach

By any measure, No Child Left Behind is massive. The 2001 legislation — the eighth reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 — runs to a massive 600 pages. It’s massively expensive, too, dispensing $25 billion in 2010. Most significantly, it’s a massive intrusion by Washington into education policy, an area previously considered the domain of state and local leaders.

Last Monday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that his department would begin granting waivers to states seeking relief from some of NCLB’s onerous provisions. At first blush, that might sound good. But the relief offer was conditional. State officials accepting the waivers must agree to conditions that the administration won’t even stipulate until next month.

Yet for many state officials, this is an offer they can’t refuse. They know they have no hope of meeting the high achievement benchmarks set in NCLB. Since they are facing certain failure, a waiver offers at least some breathing room — and the hope that the conditions to be named later won’t be so bad. 

Unfortunately, states will most likely find that the temporary relief is swamped by the new federal regulations they will face. Folks who suggest that the best way to rectify a failed stimulus is to enact an even greater stimulus are most likely also to believe that the best way to correct federal overreach in education is to reach even farther.

The Department of Education announced its waiver offer when Congress adjourned for August recess. President Obama had demanded that lawmakers send a rewritten NCLB to his desk before the start of this school year.

But failure to meet the presidential deadline wasn’t for lack of trying. There was a serious effort to craft thoughtful alternatives to NCLB. Both liberals and conservatives agree that No Child Left Behind is broken, but that’s where the agreement ends.

President Obama and other liberals still cling to the belief that, despite nearly half a century of failure, Washington can “fix” education. ESEA has been reformed and reauthorized eight times, with no improvement in educational outcomes. Yet somehow, they believe, the ninth time will be the charm. And they’ll do it by granting more power to the Department of Education.

Of course, not everyone shares the belief that 4,200 bureaucrats sitting in Washington are better equipped to oversee schools than state and local leaders. Conservatives like House Education and Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R., Minn.) resisted the notion that another rushed reauthorization of a massive education bill would somehow ensure the future of American children, either academically or fiscally. Indeed, he and others on the right insist that the only way states can exercise the flexibility they need to improve educational outcomes is to get the federal government to untangle itself from the nation’s classrooms.

To that end, Kline’s committee held numerous hearings throughout the spring examining the scope and cost of federal intervention into local schools. The committee approved several major bills providing the nucleus of a serious alternative to No Child Left Behind. Together, these bills would eliminate ineffective programs and consolidate duplicative initiatives conducted under NCLB. They would also allow states more flexibility in the use of federal education funds.

In addition, the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act (A-PLUS) was introduced in both the House and Senate this year. It would let states completely opt out of No Child Left Behind and reclaim their educational authority.

But neither the Department of Education nor the president got behind any of these reform measures. Instead, they pushed for a ninth reauthorization of ESEA. Their philosophy that Washington knows what’s best for the classroom underpins the department’s recent waiver offer. Those conditional waivers, granted only to states that agree to adopt the administration’s preferred education reforms, completely circumvent Congress.

While the administration has yet to stipulate its terms, the waivers will likely be contingent on states’ adopting national education standards and tests through the Common Core State Standards Initiative. National standards would be an unprecedented federal overreach, and granting NCLB waivers on the condition that states adopt the standards would relinquish state educational authority for curriculum — the core of education — to an unaccountable Department of Education.

The Obama administration couldn’t get its way with a rush reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Now it’s turning to “executive authority” to advance its policy priorities in local schools.

The American education system shouldn’t go the way of General Motors. The slow nationalization of American schools has failed for four straight decades. Meanwhile, states like Florida have proved that state-based reforms can significantly narrow achievement gaps while raising educational outcomes for all children. Successful state and local reforms have prompted a seismic shift toward more market-based educational options across the country. This year alone, 12 states and the District of Columbia have enacted or expanded school-choice options for families.

Instead of granting conditional waivers to states, the Obama administration should support proposals, properly advanced through Congress, to fundamentally reshape the federal role in education. Proposals to limit Washington’s overreach in education and restore educational decision-making to states would do far more to improve academic outcomes than any short-sighted waiver proposal ever will.

Lindsey M. Burke is an education-policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

Lindsey Burke Will Skillman Fellow in Education
Domestic Policy Studies

First appeared in National Review Online