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House GOP, Democrats Hit Arne Duncan on NCLB Waivers

Key members of Congress told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today that they're having a hard time following the administration's thinking when it comes to its NCLB waiver policy.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education Committee, chastised Duncan, who testified before his panel today, for what he sees as a lack of consistency when it comes to the No Child Left Behind waivers.

Specifically, Kline doesn't understand why Illinois—which doesn't conform to the U.S. Department of Education's teacher-evaluation timeline—recently got a long-delayed waiver, while Washington, lost its flexibility because its teacher-evaluation system didn't conform with department's vision. (For those nonwaiver geeks: Illinois' problem was that it planned to fully implement its teacher-evaluation system in the 2016-17 school year—one year later than the department had wanted. Washington, on the other hand, doesn't require school districts to include student progress on state tests in teacher evaluations. Districts can use either state or local tests.) 

Kline said he's befuddled. And he thinks states are probably confused too. 

"How do states expect to find consistency in those circumstances?" he asked. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees K-12 policy, also asked about the department's goals in pulling Washington's waiver. Duncan explained, essentially, that Washington went back on its promises on teacher evaluation.

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich, asked Duncan whether he plans to pull the Wolverine State's waiver. Like Washington, Michigan doesn't require state test scores to be used in teacher evaluations. But its waiver has stayed out of the danger zone (for now). Duncan said he wasn't familiar with the particulars of Michigan's situation.  

There was also Democratic pushback on waivers, although folks on the left side of the aisle had different concerns than their GOP colleagues.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif, who is slated to retire after this Congress, raised a red flag about whether the waivers are hindering student equity. In some cases, he said, states are using waivers to "mask" the performance of certain subgroup students (such as English-language learners or students in special education programs.) Miller reiterated a call to Duncan to continue to make closing achievement gaps a key goal of the waivers.

"You have the authority in that process to bring the focus back to equity for disadvantaged students," Miller said. "You must hold the line when states or districts seek to dilute efforts to equitably serve all students." (This isn't a new line of criticism for Miller, who sent a letter to Duncan earlier this year outlining similar concerns.)

And over and over again, GOP lawmakers urged Duncan to lend his support to a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, rather than relying on waivers. Last summer, the House passed an ESEA renewal bill, with only GOP support. 

Duncan agreed that, "waivers are a poor second choice" to fixing the outdated NCLB law.

"I'm willing to help in any way that will be constructive to moving forward in a bipartisan way," on ESEA reauthorization, he said. (In fact, many folks inside the Beltway think the administration has been pretty hands off lately when it comes to the reauthorization process, in part because Duncan and others are worried that the current Congress would water down accountability. More in this story.) 

Kline, who has repeatedly hit the administration for what he sees as a lack of commitment to special education funding, had a testy exchange with Duncan about the administration's budget. Kline contends it level-funds special education, while Duncan argues that there's a $100 million increase. (Who is right? Actually, both have an argument. The administration's budget does include a $100 million increase for special education—but it's directed to a new competitive grant program to help states try out evidence-based approaches to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. Since the money goes out by formula, most school districts won't see extra dollars. For more, check out page 33 of this budget document.) 

It doesn't seem likely that Congress will enact the administration's proposal to help states dramatically expand their prekindergarten offerings. That program carries a $75 billion price-tag, a tall order in a tight budget year. 

That didn't stop Duncan from stumping for the plan anyway.

"Anyone who isn't for more money isn't walking the walk," on early-childhood education, he said. 

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