Education Department Preparing To Reform Without Legislation

I went this morning for an off-the-record chat with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and some of the other key staffers at the Department of Education. They were mostly talking education policy (naturally) but what they were talking about shed an interesting window on the larger political dysfunction of the United States. Basically when the so-called “No Child Left Behind” version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law in early 2002, the expectation was that it would last for five years or so and be due for reauthorization and re-writing in 2007. It didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen in 2008 either. No biggie. Reauthorizations often don’t happen on schedule. Then when President Obama took office in 2009, he had large Democratic majorities in congress and a huge recession to deal with. So in addition to recovery measures, he emphasized an agenda that tended to unite his caucus and put ESEA reauthorization on the back-burner as something he was more likely to be able to get bipartisan support for.

So here we are in 2011, the year that was supposed to be the reauthorization year. Except it’s the end of July and we’re having a doomsday standoff over the debt ceiling. Then in September appropriations expire. Then next thing you know it’s the holidays and it’s re-election season. So while the administration still wants a proper re-write and re-authorization, nobody’s counting on it happening. Instead, the plan is to drive policy change by issuing “waivers.” Basically, the Secretary has the ability to grant conditional relief from the law’s requirements. And since the proficiency standards for Adequate Yearly Progress were set very (i.e., unrealistically) high, the waivers will be much in need. So the thinking is that rather than formally re-write the law, the administration will be able to say “well you get a waiver from this and that if you do this and that” and thus, in practice, federal education policy can change fairly dramatically without congress doing anything.

It’s clever, and since it’s probably not the kind of issue around which congress will organize a massive backlash (compare to, say, the EPA) it just might work. But it should also be taken as another sign of the increasing breakdown of our machinery of government.