Count U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, among the folks who are pretty skeptical about the administration's announcement that there might be waivers if Congress doesn't act—and act soon—on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Miller acknowledges that the current version of the ESEA, aka the No Child Left Behind Act, is flawed. Still, he's known for being very hawkish when it comes to accountabilty, particularly for poor and minority students.
"I just hope people don't see [waivers] as an escape route," said Miller at a event held today at the Center for American Progress, a think-tank in Washington. "I think you have to think long and hard about the design of those waivers."
The education community has largely "been sitting on the sidelines" during the debate over reauthorization, he said, in part because some think they might do better under a waiver scenario.
"My hope is that we don't go with Plan B," meaning waivers, he added. "I think Plan A," meaning reauthorizaton, "is essential."
As a member of the minority (that is, the party out of power) in the House of Representatives, Miller doesn't get to set the agenda. But he's probably one of the administration's closest allies in the House when it comes to K-12 policy, so his waiver skepticism is a big deal.
For his part, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reiterated his point that he'd much, much rather have a real, honest-to-goodness reauthorization than to grant waivers.
"This is Plan B," he said. "We can't afford to do nothing." But he said the waiver idea isn't a done deal. "All we [said] over the weekend is that we were just thinking about it," he said.
It's an open question whether just the sheer idea of administrative waivers will goose reauthorization on Capitol Hill, which has been bogged down lately.
But Duncan told reporters Monday that "over the course of the past week, I felt a greater sense of optimism and momentum from congressional leaders." In fact, some lawmakers say the threat of waivers might even help move things along, said a source familiar with the conversations.
Still, there's an argument to be made that waivers could actually poison the well on renewing ESEA. Lawmakers don't like to have their turf stepped on.
Meanwhile, the House education committee is moving forward with its plan to break ESEA reauthorization into bite-size pieces. The panel has already approved a bill eliminating a number of targeted programs. The next measure out of the gate was slated to be a funding flexibility bill
But that proposal is undergoing a review, said Jennifer Allen, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education committee.
"We are currently engaged in negotiations with the minority on both a funding flexibility proposal and a proposal to modernize the [federal] Charter School Program," she said. "We hope to reach a bipartisan consensus on both pieces." Right now, it looks like the charter bill may come up first, she added.
Photo: U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., left, listens as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan makes a point during an event on June 14 at the Center for American Progress in Washington. (Andrew Councill for Education Week)