NCLB waivers: relief or relapse?

Why isn’t the public asking about the hierarchy of public education legislation compared to the budget priority as national defense? Just where does the importance of public lie in America?

More of a delayed response than a bombshell: The Administration has finally responded to calls for the Department of Education to take action on behalf of students, teachers, and schools being unnecessarily harmed by NCLB requirements while Congress delays the full reauthorization of ESEA. Parents and educators’ have pleaded for months for the DOE to use its authority over the Law’s faulty implementation, including a letter from the 16-member Learning First Alliance just over a month ago.

The Ed Department had balked at resorting to regulatory relief, hoping that the public outcry would push Congress toward a speedier reauthorization, and one that included more of the Administration’s goals as outlined in its Blueprint. Now, faced with continued political inertia, Duncan has gone to what he calls “Plan B,” the issuance of waivers for some of the NCLB penalties. The plan (details of which are still very fuzzy) may help some students and schools get a respite from the NCLB axe; but it is far from being a solution.

What appears to be a just another partisan stalemate over reauthorization may actually be the latest rumblings of long-simmering political and social disagreements over our commitment to public education. When taken in context with the increasing denigration of teachers, demonizing of teacher unions, and the desecration of the ideal of quality public education for every child, the current reauthorization quandary points back to how and why the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was necessary.

Some critics have pointed to the glacial legislative progress as another reason why the Federal government should not be involved in public education policy, along with renewed calls for eliminating the Department of Education itself. In the face of such overreaction, it’s important to remember that Federal education policies, such as NCLB, do not affect all schools—but primarily those whose children depend on Federal funding and oversight to compensate for continued inequitable, incompetent, or indictable allocation of educational resources at the state and local levels. The Federal government’s role in education policy increased as citizens turned to it for protection and redress that could not be obtained at the local level. Cuts in state budgets, such as those in North Carolina—long considered an educational leader among Southern states—highlight both the continued need for Federal role and the larger need to break the link between local property taxes and public education. Public education should be as much of a legislative and budget priority as national defense.

As I’ve noted before:

President Obama has asserted more than once that a child’s zip code should not determine the quality of his or her education. While I understand his point of reference, and cheer the concept, the reality is as long as school funding in our nation is still heavily dependent on local property taxes, poor children will always be underserved and those who work with them will continue to expend precious energies trying to make up for unnecessary gaps in resources and services.  Even long-standing programs such as Title I, have not come anywhere close to bringing educational services in high-poverty districts to parity with their middle-class counterparts within most states. Has the fact that most of what we now label “failing schools” are also the schools that have been historically underfunded and under-resourced registered on those who promote wholesale staff replacements as the key to turning those schools around?

For all our talk, as a nation, about the importance of education, it remains to be seen whether we will bring our policy and our budgets into alignment with our words.

Cross-posted at National Journal.com

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