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New High School Program Latest Example of Duncan Efforts to Get Around Congress

So everyone knows that Congress has been partisan and broken for years. Lawmakers have a lot of on their plates when it comes to education policy, and very little political will to accomplish it in a bipartisan way.

So the Obama administration, partly by necessity, has been relying on its executive muscle—and billions of dollars in loosely structured federal funding provided back in 2009 under the stimulus—to get what it wants on everything from teacher evaluation to school improvement and accountability.

When it became clear that Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization wasn't happening, the administration put in place a system of waivers based largely on its blueprint for revising the law. It's even given a waiver to a group of California districts, over the objections of Republicans in Congress.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put a lot of effort into reauthorization during his first term, holding regular meetings with the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate education committees (or "Big 8"). But now, he's been accused of giving a cold shoulder to congressional efforts to revise the law.

Now that there's very little stimulus—or any other—money left, Duncan's leverage appears to be slackening.

But the administration has continued to think of creative ways to get what it wants without having to ask lawmakers for it, even congressional Democrats.

The latest case-in-point? The new high school program, announced just this week. The Senate appropriations committee—which is ruled by Democrats—decided it had other priorities┬ábesides the administration's proposed high school redesign program. It opted not to fund the initiative in its still-unfinished version of the fiscal year 2014 spending bill.

So what did the administration do? It found the money, in a way that required absolutely no help from Congress—even its Democratic allies—by using what essentially amounted to the federal budget equivalent of loose couch-cushion change ($100 million in fees from H.B. 1 visas, run out of the U.S. Department of Labor). Even Democrats on the education committee, including Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., who is optimistic about the program's potential, said they would have liked a heads-up on the move.

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