What Do Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and Making Hot Dogs Have in Common?
Published: August 2011
Congress returns to Washington next week after we, mere mortals, weathered two natural almost-disasters: a 5.8 earthquake, and Hurricane Irene. All I can say that is that the hot air will certainly start to blow hard next week and instead of the Weather Channel saying the sky will fall, we will have pundits wringing their hands over more gridlock and the curse of a double-dip recession.
So here is what we now know.
1. Congressional action on ESEA reauthorization is moving at glacial speed. Three mini-bills have passed out of the House Education and Workforce Committee that addressed funding flexibility, expanded use of charters, and elimination of duplicative programs. A fourth bill is likely later this Fall to tackle the central and difficult issues of school and district accountability and potential interventions like SES and school improvement strategies. But chances for bi-partisan action in the House is like seeing a mirage in the desert-too good to be true.
The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) has been working hard; I mean really, really hard on their version of ESEA v2.0. So far it has succeeded in missing every public deadline the committee sets for itself to mark up a bill out of Committee starting last Spring. But staff report progress is likely using a version of the Administration’s Blueprint as the framework. They do need bi-partisan support to move legislation in the Senate and Senators Harkin (D-IA) and Alexander (R-TN) are working closely.
In the final analysis, the clock will run out on ESEA reauthorization by this October This is when our elected officials shift into high gear for their re-election and Washington-centric work gets tabled. And in a Presidential-election cycle (2012), conventional wisdom holds that no major legislation is enacted, further delaying consideration of ESEA until well after the Inauguration of President __? in 2013.
2. The priority of Congress this Fall is serious work on deficit reductions (entitlements, revenue and/or tax code simplification) through the Super Committee created in the wake of the debt ceiling debacle last month. Once again, these debates will suck the oxygen out of the Hill and consume the President.
3. With no Congressional “fix” to NCLB in sight, Secretary Duncan has said he will have his “Plan B” ready sometime after Labor Day. This comes in the wake of a chorus of cries for help from states and local school administrators. They seek immediate relief from NCLB accountability provisions, especially as more schools fail to meet 2014 proficiency targets. Several states have asked for waivers to the 2011-12 school year and these (KS) have been rejected by the Department, while recent ones (CA, and TN) are still pending. It is hard to see how waivers for this school year will be granted, but the 2012-2013 school year is another story.
Here what we know from informed sources about future waivers. These waivers will likely cover states that are in one of two categories. Let’s call one set of states early adopters of reform (“adopters”) and the other set of states as moving towards reform (“movers”). The adopter states may be recipients and finalists of RTTT competitive grants. These states, having demonstrated significant commitment to the reforms prioritized by the Administration, may be offered waivers with the most flexibility from certain NCLB provisions, including the ability to opt out of interventions like SES.
The other group of states, “movers,” may be eligible for waivers with less flexibility. For example, these waivers may “stop the clock” of schools in need of improvement as of a certain year (e.g. January 2010). The net effect of this waiver will be to limit local spending on interventions like SES to those schools that were deemed eligible prior to January, 2010 (for illustration purposes only).
More details on this package of waivers will be issued by the Department as soon as next week, or later in September. There will likely be a public comment period and final application rules published in the Federal Register. All state applications will be evaluated by an external panel just like what was used in the RTTT and i3 grant competitions, with decisions potentially announced by 2012.
There is growing bi-partisan opposition to the use of waivers with members of both parties stating publically that waivers undermine the authority of Congress. Furthermore, civil rights groups are also concerned that civil rights protections and the parent engagement (including SES) requirements of NCLB will be cast aside through waivers; indeed, these same advocacy groups are making the case that the Secretary’s waiver authority is specifically precluded from relaxing these two provisions and may threaten a direct challenge of the Administration.
So get ready for more blustering winds, shaking buildings, and new plagues that may rain down upon our public officials here in Washington. The next 90 days here will not be pretty, but whoever said making policy is? In fact, it is more like watching hot dogs being made.
Please pass the mustard...