Congress Cedes Authority to the Obama Administration ... Yet Again

By Margaret Spellings

Crossposted from The Huffington Post

The fiscal cliff isn't the only ledge the nation is in danger of heading over.

As the 113th Congress begins, we are no closer to a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA). The law is six years overdue for renewal and there is no sign of movement in the Congress. Rather, Congress is ceding its authority to influence the future of education policy to an Obama Administration handing out waivers to states like candy to kids. The federal law -- and all of its protections for students and families -- is being gutted.

Congress isn't the only one looking the other way as states have received approvals from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to set income and race-based student achievement targets that expect less from the kids who need our public schools the most. No one in the education establishment seems particularly fazed. Where are the leaders of civil rights organizations who were at the table during the crafting of NCLB and who fought vigorously alongside the business community to ensure that all American children, regardless of circumstances, would have access to a high quality education? Where are the advocacy groups for students with disabilities and English language learners who are being conveniently hidden within opaque so-called "super sub-groups" that make it harder to know whether a school is doing its job? Where are the urban school systems when only the lowest performing five percent of schools are on the radar screen for fixing? And where are parent organizations and other education consumers when access to choices among public schools and tutoring for children are being stripped away?

As one of the architects of the last reauthorization bill, No Child Left Behind, I'm proud of what the law has achieved based on where we started. Prior to NCLB, states had little to show for 35 years of federal taxpayer investment. Considerable work was needed to even get states to the point where basic data on students and schools could be collected, shared and compared. The lack of information or means to secure it meant that little was known about how schools were performing or whether students were learning. Today, we know a great deal more about the effectiveness of America's public schools. Knowing, in theory, means we can do something about it. Thus far, however, the transition from knowledge to policy has eluded the Congress.

There is no question that NCLB needs to be updated. Times change and so do laws. But rather than build on the success of the current law -- disaggregation of data, clear and coherent reporting of performance results, and meaningful accountability for improving student achievement -- the U.S. Department of Education is systematically dismantling the law.

Secretary Duncan and the Department of Education could have adjusted the much maligned "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) measurement tool designed to identify which schools were doing the hard work of teaching students to read and cypher on grade level. Instead, the tool was tossed aside. In most states, annual student achievement targets are now essentially meaningless.

But like our current myopic and short-sighted approaches to fixing our fiscal house, we can no more waive the achievement gap away than we can erase our national debt by minting a trillion dollar coin.

Why, then, are we rolling back the clock on achievement gains? Just who are policymakers trying to accommodate? Perhaps they have forgotten how poorly America's minority and low-income students were treated before NCLB was enacted.

The notion that achievement expectations should be adjusted based on a child's skin color, ethnicity or income level is, I would hope, abhorrent to all Americans. In passing NCLB, Republicans and Democrats embraced a belief that all children -- regardless of their zip code -- could achieve if given access to a quality education. But now, under the Obama Administration's waiver policy, all but a very few states are now using race-based student achievement goals. You can look them up for yourself on the Department's "flexibility" website. Let me give you one example.

In Virginia, the state initially was approved by Secretary Duncan to expect 89 percent of Asian students to meet state standards in math by 2017, but only 59 percent of low income students and even fewer African American students. Only after, among others, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called these new standards "insulting and narrow-minded" was the state asked by the Department of Education to reconsider the already approved targets.

While the current mantra of having every student "college and career ready" is laudable, it's an empty promise. The government cannot simultaneously provide "relief" as President Obama claims, from NCLB's "dummied down standards" and still make a serious argument for the Common Core. If NCLB's goal of having all students performing at grade level in reading and math is unrealistic, and states have convinced the feds that what they need is less transparency, lower achievement targets and fewer interventions in failing schools, what really are the prospects for college and career readiness for all?

Today we celebrate Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Among the many beautiful, moving and motivating words he left us with, he once said: "Cowardice asks the question -- is it safe? Expediency asks the question -- is it politic? Vanity asks the question -- is it popular? But conscience asks the question -- is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right."

In the name of progress and prosperity for our country, we must open ourselves up to a host of educational strategies, options and experiments to advance student learning. We must tap the intellect and ideas of every sector. And, we must hold firm to our conviction that with an education and a dream, every American can make his or her own success. We need to do those things that we know may not safe, politic or popular because they are right for our nation, our children and for our future.

Margaret Spellings is President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation