Arnius Duncanus?


like Commodus of
ancient Rome (portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator), Arne Duncan is letting out his
frustrations with Congress’s inaction over ESEA reauthorization (currently
known as NCLB)—and nobody seems to like it. His warning to Congress
that he will take matters into his own hands via waivers has drawn large-scale

my take. First, the Secretary deserves credit for doing something to encourage ESEA
reauthorization (beyond issuing groveling press releases and pleading
statements). Congress is dithering and to date no amount of pressure—Presidential
or otherwise—has made a difference. The Republicans in the House at least have
some reasonable excuses—with all those new members still getting up to speed,
and the tricky politics of the Tea Party. But Senator Harkin should be ashamed (though
he doesn’t
appear to be
); Easter is long past and still we have no bill from his
committee. It would be great to think that Duncan’s threat will finally be the jumpstart he needs to get his act together.

as Rick
Hess has pointed out
, Duncan’s plans to tie regulatory relief to new
requirements indicates an incredible amount of hubris, not to mention
Constitutional ignorance. Yes, under NCLB’s waiver authority, the Secretary has
a lot of room to maneuver in terms of letting states and districts escape from
onerous parts of the law. But not a single provision or authority gives his
Department the power to make its supplicants agree to a specific reform package
in return. As a spokeswoman for the top Republican on the House education
committee told Education
: “Chairman Kline remains concerned about any initiative that would
allow the secretary to pick winners and losers in the nation’s education system.”

So what
was Team Duncan thinking? For an idea, we turn to NCLB-uber-advocate Kati

we believe targeted waivers in exchange for real movement on those issues is a
good thing, regulatory relief would fit squarely in the ‘cop-out’ category.

Put in
a different way, if all you do is try to fix the most onerous parts of NCLB,
but don’t “move the ball down the field” in terms of reform, you are copping

prefer another line of reasoning: If we reformers want to save the larger
project of school reform, we need to fix NCLB now before the backlash gets even

here’s my advice to Duncan and the gang on Maryland Avenue: Go ahead with a
package of regulations that would provide blanket waivers of the worst parts of
the law. Make sure parameters are in place (states would still have to have
accountability systems, for example). But don’t try to tie this stuff to new
mandates. That will only get NCLB implementation embroiled in a lawsuit (which
you’ll lose) and to acrimonious charges of imperialism (which will be

This piece originally
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.