How “Waiving” NCLB Reinforced Federal Control

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In September 2011, a week after President Obama announced that states could apply for waivers from some No Child Left Behind provisions, we warned against accepting the notion that getting these waivers would return any real power over education back to the states. We noted that South Carolina legislators accept around $300 million each year in NCLB funds each year, and how under this program the federal government can force schools to restructure if they don’t meet just one of up to 33 goals. And we cautioned that by getting these waivers, South Carolina would still be dependent on the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars in education funds, and thus lose the ability to decide how to fund our own poor school districts and be put at the mercy of the U.S. Department of Education.

Put simply: by applying for the waivers, South Carolina would be trading a tight set of strings for a slightly looser set.

In addition to a looser set of strings, we also got Common Core.

In order to receive NCLB waivers, states have to address four principles listed in the U.S. Dept. of Education’s “ESEA Flexibility” document; the most notable principle: “College and Career Ready Expectations for All Students.” The document’s explanation of the principle reads, in part,

Over the past few years, Governors and Chief State School Officers have developed and adopted rigorous academic content standards to prepare all students for success in college and careers in the 21st century.  States are also coming together to develop the next generation of assessments aligned with these new standards, and to advance essential skills that promote critical thinking, problem solving, and the application of knowledge.  To support States in continuing the work of transitioning students, teachers, and schools to a system aligned to college and career ready expectations, this flexibility would remove obstacles that hinder that work.

So what are these “rigorous academic content standards” that governors and school officers have developed? And what are these “assessments aligned with these new standards” that states have come together to develop? Decoded, all this text means is that, as a major part of getting NCLB waivers, states must use Common Core standards and the federally funded assessments used to measure success under these standards. This point is illustrated in the SC Dept. of Education request for NCLB waivers in which the words “Common Core” or “CCSS” (Common Core State Standards) is mentioned 364 times.

On July 19, 2012, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan approved South Carolina’s request for waivers. The specific waivers can be found at the bottom of Duncan’s letter.

One should probably be troubled by the whole concept of states asking the federal government for “waivers,” especially when the waivers apply to education policy, a state rather than a federal responsibility. Nowhere does the U.S. Constitution give the federal government the power to regulate education. You catch a glimpse of just how paternal the relationship between states and Washington has become when you see federal authorities getting states to beg for small waivers in an endless sea of federal regulations. This is a much broader problem that states have willingly brought upon themselves by relying on federal funding.

So here we are nearly two years after President Obama originally announced the plan for NCLB waivers, and where to we stand? We stand in the final “bridge-year” for Common Core standards – standards which neither our education superintendent nor governor have approved – and one year away from full implementation. And we got here because in a situation in which South Carolina policymakers had three options to choose from, they only focused on the two that would give away South Carolina’s constitutional right to educate its own children.

Here are the two options that policymakers really saw as the only two possible choices: (1) take federal NCLB funds and abide by all strings attached, or (2) take federal NCLB funds, abide by most strings attached, and implement Common Core. But there is a third option, the one SCPC suggested two years ago: Refuse NCLB funds and reclaim South Carolina’s power to educate its own children.

By refusing these funds, South Carolina could decide what to teach and how, re-introduce parental input into public education, better define “student success” instead of leaving its definition up to D.C. bureaucrats, and devise a more effective way to fund education.

The inescapable truth is this: that until our politicians start refusing federal education money, South Carolina will continue to be at the mercy of federal dictates.

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