Education secretary defends No Child Left Behind waivers

"Providing waivers was always, always our Plan B," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told senators.

Story highlights

  • Inaction by Congress has left No Child Left Behind Act in effect despite 2007 sunset
  • "That's our fault. That's on us," says Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee
  • Education secretary defends the waiver process as employed by the administration
  • Republicans have complained about conditions placed on waivers
Republicans and Democrats in the Senate agreed Thursday that they would prefer a new education bill to the current use of waivers by the Obama administration that bypass the No Child Left Behind Act, which is more than five years overdue for an overhaul.
"The bottom line is that it expired in 2007 except for a provision that says if Congress didn't act, it would continue; and Congress didn't act, so it's continuing," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
"That's our fault. That's on us," Alexander added.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared before the committee to give an update on his use of waivers for states who are unable to meet the criteria set out in the No Child Act so the state can still receive federal education funding until Congress reauthorizes the program.
"Providing waivers was always, always our plan B. But I was not willing to stand idly by and do nothing while students and educators continue to suffer under No Child Left Behind," the secretary said.
The waivers have been controversial among Republicans who object to the stipulations that the Obama administration puts onto many states before they are awarded.
"This simple waiver authority has turned into a conditional waiver with the secretary basically having more authority to make decisions that in my view should be made locally by state and local governments," Alexander said.
If Congress comes up with a deal to reauthorize NCLB, which is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Duncan said his understanding is that the waivers would become obsolete.
According to the education secretary, 34 states and the District of Columbia have been granted the waivers while nine states, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education have requests under consideration. The deadline to apply for the waivers is at the end of February.
During the last Congress a bill out of the Senate committee to reauthorize ESEA, That bill died at the end of the session without ever making it to the Senate floor for debate.
A series of smaller bills were passed out of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that dealt with ESEA topics last year. One of those bills that dealt with Charter Schools made it to the House floor for debate and was passed, but died at the end of the last session with no action from the Senate.
"It's no secret that for many years Congress has been dysfunctional," Duncan said. "My team and I put in hundreds and hundreds of hours in what proved to be a fruitless effort over the past two years. In all candor, I would like to have gone to waivers earlier."