Count Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, among the folks who want to know exactly what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan means when he says he's going to consider giving states waivers from parts of the No Child Left Behind law if Congress doesn't act soon on a rewrite.
Kline and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who heads the subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy, sent a letter today to Duncan asking him to please explain a) where he gets the authority to do these waivers, and b) what exactly these waivers will entail.
Kline is especially uneasy with Duncan's assertion that the flexibility would be given in exchange for states' willingness to embrace a package of reforms dreamed up by the department.
The two congressmen want to see a detailed explanation of the proposal from Duncan by July 1. They also want to know when the plan will be finalized, how the department plans to seek review and public comments, and a timeline explaining just when the waivers would become effective. (Psst, Ed. Dept., please cc Politics K-12 on your response to the chairman ... we're curious about those very same things! And so, apparently, are Idaho and Kentucky.)
In response, Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the department, reiterated the rationale for the waivers:
"The best way to fix this broken law is for Congress to send a bi-partisan bill for the president to sign by the start of the school year. Congress may need more time to finish its work, but states working to implement reforms needed to prepare their students for college and career need greater flexibility now—in real time, not Washington time.
"As a plan B, we'll be prepared to use the authority Congress has given us to grant relief in exchange for reforms that boost student achievement. This will give both states the flexibility they need and Congress the time it requires to complete work on a new bill."
Kline took umbrage at the suggestion that Congress, specifically his committee, has somehow been dragging its feet on reauthorization. More than half the GOP lawmakers on the committee were brand new at the start of the year, he said.
And even though these are high-flying folks (doctors, lawyers, former state lawmakers), many of them simply don't have an extensive education policy background and needed to be brought up to speed on the NCLB law, he explained.
Kline said he doesn't want to be held to a specific timeline and then end up writing "bad legislation." Given the need to get the new lawmakers up to speed, he doesn't think he could move the bills any faster.
And the committee hasn't been sitting on its hands, Kline stressed.
"We are moving, despite what you [may have] heard," he said.
And he laid out a game plan for going forward:
• The committee will tackle funding flexibility next. Kline said he has been working on the legislation with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee, and he said he has "fairly high hopes" that it could be bipartisan. He plans to introduce the legislation in July.
• In September, the committee will work on teacher issues (Kline wants to move away from the idea of "highly qualified" and towards "effectiveness").
• Then they'll take on the big kahuna: accountability.
Kline didn't offer many details about what those last two bills will look like, but he acknowledged that they aren't going to be easy issues to work out.
"It's going to be controversial and hard to do," he said.
On accountability, Kline offered a couple of hints as to his thinking. First off, he thinks whatever the committee comes up with is going to look different from the current system under the law (adequate yearly progress). And he's not a fan of having everything hinge on one test score. What does he like? Data systems, and disaggregating data by student subgroup (such as English-language learners.)
Kline said the committee is currently asking itself "accountability for what and to whom?" (a line he said that Miller has also used.) He's not sure the secretary of education is the right person for schools to be accountable to; school boards, parents, communities and others should be in the mix.