Posted 6/4/12

Winning A Waiver

U.S Education Secy. Arne Duncan
Photo by Steve Kotchko

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared at a joint news conference at the State Capitol last week with Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy to announce that the federal government is granting Connecticut a waiver from the so-called “No Child Left Behind Law” that ties federal funding to student performance.

The waiver is designed to give Connecticut more flexibility in using federal Title 1 education funds “meaning the state can now use that money to fund programs and reform models that are right for Connecticut and gets it to the students who need it,” according to a news release from Malloy’s office.

Duncan’s decision will also help the state avoid a scenario in which almost half of Connecticut’s public schools would have been labeled as “failing”, forcing major restructuring and perhaps school closures.

“No Child Left Behind” originally was a plan from the administration of President George W. Bush (the elder) to back standards-based education reform with an eye to improving overall student achievement in America.  The plan passed Congress with bipartisan backing.

Over the years, the law spawned controversy because of annual skills tests.  Educators, parents, and elected officials claimed too many schools became obsessed with testing, and true education was losing out to a philosophy of “teaching to the test.”  In time, abuses occurred and harried school administrators faced accusations they had played games with achievement test scores to avoid scrutiny from boards of education.

That has led to the irony of seeing America’s top education official, Duncan, applauded when he comes to states such as Connecticut to grant an official waiver from the existing “No Child” federal law.  Duncan himself criticized the law.

“The law is very punitive, there are about 50 ways to fail,” said Duncan, “and the only reward for success is that you are not labeled a failure.”  He said the law is “largely broken” and “fundamentally flawed.”

Duncan said in a perfect world, the law would have been updated and reformed, but Congress is in partisan gridlock, and any reasonable attempt to change things would be lost in a Democrat-Republican battle over education philosophy, so the Obama administration has decided to help states by granting waivers—essentially end runs on the law.

“We would have preferred to do this by re-writing (the law) and fixing what is broken, while preserving what is right,” said Duncan, “but we’re struggling to reach consensus in Congress and children cannot wait any longer, our teachers can’t wait, and America can’t wait."

The Secretary made it clear his decision to grant Connecticut an official waiver was triggered by passage of the state education reform package agreed to by Malloy and the legislature.  If that piece of progress had not been approved “I don’t think I would have been here,” Duncan revealed.

In addition to Connecticut, the government granted “No Child” waivers to Rhode Island, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, and Louisiana.  To date, a total of 19 states have been approved for waivers winning the right to craft their own reforms and progress.

“I say all the time that the best ideas in education will never come from me,” Duncan conceded, “and frankly never come from anyone else in Washington.”  Some libertarians and educators felt from the beginning that the “No Child” law gave too much authority to the federal government, that education (and its funding) traditionally were in the province of state and their cities and towns.

“The best ideas (in education) do come from bold and forward-thinking state and local leaders:  teachers, parents, principals, elected officials, school boards, who are moving beyond the tired old battles of the past, and rolling up their sleeves to close those (education) achievement gaps to make sure every young person graduates and is career-ready,” Duncan declared.

Malloy thanked Duncan for the waiver and promised Connecticut would put it to good use.  “Receiving a waiver will ensure that Connecticut has the flexibility to implement a reform plan that fits our state, one that is not bound by federal mandates,” said the Governor.  “Now that we have a reform plan in place, we will begin working in earnest to close the nation’s largest achievement gap (between rich and poor school districts),” he added.

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