The unilateral repeal of NCLB and the 2012 election

Obama administration’s new waiver plan doesn’t officially repeal the No Child
Left Behind Act, but it is tantamount to making large-scale amendments
to it. Which it does unilaterally, without even a thumbs-up from Congress.

the specific conditions that the White House and Secretary Duncan are attaching
to statewide “flexibility waivers” are consistent with the administration’s
long-standing “blueprint”
for reauthorizing NCLB
, and also happen to be conditions that I think
generally have merit, they amount to changing the law, not just waiving it.
This raises constitutional as well as statutory issues—though the
administration’s response, not surprisingly or implausibly, has been that “if a
do-nothing Congress won’t act to solve problems, we’ll solve them ourselves as
best we can.”

Yet the
changes themselves—at least their timing and high-profile release—are motivated
at least as much by election-year political considerations as by policy. This
is not the first example, and surely won’t be the last, of appealing to key
constituencies by undoing, suspending, or waiving government practices that
they find onerous and unpleasant. Consider the
non-deportation of illegal aliens
who haven’t committed crimes. Hispanic
(and other immigrant) voters will surely applaud this move and likely thank the
administration in November 2012.

week’s announcements mean that teachers and parents (and school-board
members and administrators) also now can breathe a sigh of relief at the
suggestion that the president and his education
secretary are taking the heavy hand of unrealistic achievement targets,
embarrassing school labels, and unwanted accountability burdens off their frail

they’re partly right, for the promised waivers, once issued, really do ease
some of the most painful parts of NCLB—provisions that analysts and critics
have pointed to for a very long time as needing revision.

they’ll be only partly right. For the administration is also imposing
its own preconditions on states for waiver eligibility. Three in particular,
all of which are wrenching and controversial in their own right, and at least
one of which could result in an election-year firestorm:

  • Teachers
    and principals will be concerned about the obligation of states to develop
    evaluation systems for them that incorporate measures of student progress.
  • A
    variety of groups will be upset over the plan to impose “rigorous interventions
    to turn schools around” only on a small number of really low-performing schools
    and let merely mediocre schools escape the turnaround lash.
  • The
    greatest potential for political controversy, however, is the requirement that
    states seeking waivers “have already adopted college- and career-ready
    standards” in math and English language arts, which is preceded (in the White
    House document) by reference to the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
    This will surely be viewed by Common Core skeptics as entangling Title I with
    that heretofore state-driven initiative and creating new federal incentives for
    states to embrace its “national” standards. I happen to think the Common Core
    standards are generally worth embracing, but I also understand that much of
    what’s good about them is their separateness from Uncle Sam. That distance is
    now disappearing.

One who
might notice is the governor of Texas, who detests everything about the Common
Core and has kept his state out of it—and who just happens to be Barack Obama’s
likeliest opponent in the 2012 election.

This piece originally
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog as well as on
the National Review Online’s The Corner blog
and the National Journal’s education
. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.