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BURKE: Rewriting No Child with waivers and conditions

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Most American school kids have grown up under No Child Left Behind. Youngsters who entered kindergarten in 2001, when the law was passed, are in high school today. They might not know it, but over the years, what happens in their classrooms has become increasingly informed by the demands of bureaucrats in Washington.

While high school juniors may be unaware of how much NCLB has shaped their school experience, they've likely heard murmurs of disdain for the 600-page law in their school hallways. Most teachers (and most members of Congress, for that matter) agree that No Child Left Behind is broken.

They criticize the law's prescriptive nature, its unrealistic proficiency requirements and its threat of sanctions for failing to meet them. Moreover, they agree that NCLB has shifted educators' focus from the student to the imperative of meeting Washington mandates.

But instead of charting a different course and loosening Washington's grip on local schools, the Obama administration is attempting to correct one federal overreach (NCLB) with another.

In August, President Obama announced that his administration would begin offering states waivers to insulate them from the onerous provisions of NCLB - specifically, the requirement that all students to be "proficient" in math and reading by 2014, as measured by Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). But there was a catch. Last week the administration announced that, to get a waiver, a state would have to accept conditions stipulated by the Obama Education Department.

The announcement came as the president's arbitrary timeline for reauthorizing NCLB expired. This administrative "fix," he indicated, was necessary because Congress had dragged its feet on reauthorization. In reality, Congress hadn't been procrastinating at all. The House Education and the Workforce Committee held numerous hearings on reforming NCLB and has offered legislative alternatives to the law.

But Mr. Obama found the pace too slow. Instead, he took matters into his own hands. The waiver offer is the executive branch's attempt to dictate education policy - with or without congressional consent.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently declared his "absolute preference is for Congress to fix it [NCLB] for the entire country. But there's a level of dysfunction in Congress that's paralyzing." In other words, lack of congressional approval won't prohibit the administration from advancing its own education agenda. The Founders would surely shudder at this approach to governance.

The federal government has no constitutional authority to legislate or regulate in any area that is not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, whether it is a "nationwide" issue or not. Education is not mentioned in the Constitution. Yet every administration since 1965 has grown the federal role in education. Now, adding insult to Constitutional injury, the administration isn't even seeking congressional approval to rewrite No Child Left Behind.

In accepting the waivers, states will get some temporary relief from NCLB's burdensome provisions, in exchange for long-term handcuffs. Making education policy a compact directly between states and the Secretary of Education is a bad precedent, one that could lead to far more centralized control in the future. Further, the waivers are contingent on the state's participation in national standards and tests. This condition cedes the heart of education to federal control.

Instead of accepting strings-attached waivers, states should demand genuine flexibility from Washington. An administration truly interested in granting states relief from NCLB would eagerly embrace current legislative proposals to give states far more latitude in how they pursue educational excellence.

For example, the House Education and the Workforce Committee has several proposals to help schools cut through federal red tape. This includes eliminating or consolidating many NCLB programs and allowing greater flexibility in spending $20 billion of NCLB's $25 billion funding. Alternative proposals like A-PLUS would let states completely opt-out of the many NCLB programs and spend education dollars in ways calculated to best meet students' needs.

Instead, the administration appears to be more interested in advancing its own education agenda - with or without congressional consent. String-laden waivers are a worrisome example of blatant executive-branch overreach.

• Lindsey M. Burke is Senior Education Policy Analyst in Domestic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.

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