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WAVE GOODBYE TO WAIVERS?: Key House Republicans Challenge Duncan’s Plan to Grant Waivers to NCLB Requirements

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“The committee is optimistic a bipartisan consensus is possible on commonsense reforms that reduce the federal footprint in education and allow states and school districts the flexibility to meet the needs of their unique communities.”

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined his options for waiving certain requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) should Congress be unable to finish a reauthorization of the law by this fall. Last week, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and House Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) responded in a letter to Duncan asking him to explain the U.S. Department of Education’s “legal authority” for requiring states and schools to abide by certain changes in exchange for regulatory relief.

“The committee is optimistic a bipartisan consensus is possible on commonsense reforms that reduce the federal footprint in education and allow states and school districts the flexibility to meet the needs of their unique communities,” Kline and Hunter wrote. “However, as we continue working to attain this goal, we must ensure temporary measures do not undermine our efforts. Toward that end, we respectfully request additional information about the Department’s recent announcement that they will grant waivers to states and school districts.”

Specifically, Kline and Hunter asked Duncan to provide the following information by July 1:

  1. An explanation of the department’s legal authority for requiring states and schools to abide by certain changes in exchange for regulatory relief
  2. A detailed explanation of the department’s proposal
  3. An explanation of when the department’s proposal will be finalized
  4. An outline of the process for review and public comment; and
  5. A timeline that clarifies when waivers would become effective

Kline and Hunter acknowledged that greater flexibility in the nation’s education system is “urgently needed,” but wrote the department’s proposal is “cause for concern.” They told Duncan that issuing new demands in exchange for relief “could result in greater regulations and confusion for schools and less transparency for parents” and “raises questions about the department’s legal authority to grant conditional waivers in exchange for reforms not authorized by Congress.”

According to the New York Times, Kline went further in a conference call with reporters, “criticizing the administration’s use of the $5 billion Race to the Top grant competition to get states to adopt its reform agenda.” Kline said Duncan “is not the nation’s superintendent,” adding that Congress gave the secretary “way too much authority in the stimulus bill when it said, ‘Here’s $5 billion, go do good things for education.’”

On the conference call, Kline also outlined a timeline for rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known NCLB, saying that he would move five bills to the House floor by the end of the year.

The Education and Workforce Committee has already passed the Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act , which would eliminate more than forty federal education programs, including Striving Readers, Smaller Learning Communities, High School Graduation Initiative, and Enhancing Education Through Technology (Ed-Tech). On June 22, the committee approved the “Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act” (see box below), which will encourage the development and expansion of more high-quality charter schools.

Kline and Hunter said the three additional reform bills would improve funding flexibility, support quality teachers, and redefine accountability. The New York Times reported that committee approval for the flexibility bill could occur before Congress recesses for the summer, while the bills on teachers and accountability “will dominate the committee’s fall agenda.”

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