Lessons for Utah from Iowa: Fight for control of education
After the Berlin Wall fell in the late 1980s, central planning was all but discredited throughout the world. The exception, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) notes, was in Washington, D.C., "where every bureaucracy has, since that time, doubled down to insist that central planning be done out of Washington with one-size-fits-all solutions."
That central planning approach is visible in the Obama administration's push for national standards and tests, and through its efforts to craft an executive branch re-write of No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, by offering strings-attached waivers to states. Most recently, the administration made NCLB waivers all but contingent on a state adopting the Common Core standards, creating another strong incentive for states to relinquish control of the content taught in local schools.
The waivers, which release states from some of the most onerous provisions of NCLB, have been offered only to those states that agree to implement the White House's preferred education policies. When combined with the administration's push for national standards and tests, the waivers represent one of the quickest ways states can abandon citizen ownership of education.
If the centralizing impact of the Obama education waivers wasn't already clear, the recent decision by the U.S. Department of Education to issue its first waiver rejection to Iowa — a state well known for its history of local control — makes it unambiguous that the waivers are designed to increase federal control over education.
Why was the Hawkeye state denied this alleged flexibility? Evidently, Iowa's long-standing legacy of school district autonomy prevented the state from being eligible for a waiver.
The U.S. Department of Education informed Iowa that it would have to implement a statewide teacher evaluation system if it hoped to receive a waiver. Because the legislature hasn't vested the state department of education with the authority to mandate such regulations on school districts, Iowa can't meet the federal government's condition.
As U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote in a letter to Secretary Duncan's post-waiver denial, "the Iowa Department of Education lacks the authority to implement such a system because the Iowa Legislature considered the matter and declined to grant that authority."
"It is certainly not the place of the U.S. Secretary of Education to condition relief of certain federal requirements on the adoption of a whole new federal policy agenda that has never passed Congress and therefore lacks democratic legitimacy," Grassley continued.
The senator is exactly right. The U.S. Department of Education has stood on dubious legal grounds from the very beginning of the waiver announcement. While the secretary has waiver authority under NCLB, that waiver authority exists to waive certain requirements for states. It does not permit the Department of Education to offer waivers to states that are buckling under the bureaucratic pressure of NCLB, on the condition that they adopt the administration's preferred policies.
One is certainly hard-pressed to find cheerleaders for NCLB. The bureaucratic law created a tremendous paperwork burden for states and significantly grew Washington intervention into local school policy. But in the midst of congressional deliberations about the future of NCLB, President Obama began offering waivers from the law to states that agreed to implement Department of Education priorities.
To date, 37 states and Washington, D.C. have applied for a waiver from the law, and 26 states have been awarded waivers.
The waivers are sold as "relief" and "flexibility" from the heavy-handed federal law, but come at a steep price to state educational autonomy. States must agree to implement the Obama administration's preferred policies, such as adopting national standards and tests. Accepting a waiver means agreeing to the conditions promulgated by the department, further relinquishing state educational autonomy.