No Child Left Behind Waivers Provide Stopgap, But Will Obama Lead on Education Reform?

Joseph Misulonas

On Friday, the Department of Education announced that it has granted No Child Left Behind waivers to two states, Washington and Wisconsin. Since announcing the waiver program five months ago, the Obama administration has granted them to 26 states, with 10 states’ waiver requests still pending.  Critics of NCLB have argued the program pushes unrealistic expectations onto schools, then punishes them harshly for underachievement. Others say it limits the freedom of schools to distribute resources and emphasizes specific subjects over comprehensive learning.  The NCLB waivers free states from having to meet the law’s central mandates. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says the waivers allow states increased flexibility with federal funds and permit them to develop their own solutions to their particular problems. But Joshua Starr, a superintendent of the Montgomery County schools in Maryland, described the waivers as “moving around the chairs on the Titanic.”
Ten years after then-President Bush signed NCLB into law, the program has done little to improve the American education system. Initial assessments showed gains in math scores for fourth to eighth graders, but those results have plateaued in recent years. And while African-American and Hispanic children are performing two grade levels higher now than they were ten years ago, there remains a huge performance gap between minority and white students.  The failure of NCLB has led to a push for renewed education reform. In 2009, President Obama announced his “Race to the Top” program. This initiative made available $4.35 billion of additional federal funds to states to improve K-12 schools. The Department of Education evaluates states’ applications according to improvement in academic standards, teacher quality and expansion of charter schools. While this effort is noble in intention, “Race to the Top” merely rewards states which perform the best, rather than aiding those that most need the funds.  In this election year, education is one the most important issue for voters. According to a College Board survey in March, education is tied with healthcare as the the third most important issue this November, behind only jobs/​economy and government spending. While voters may put education at the top of their priorities, politicians and the media have ignored it in favor of other issues, primarily job creation and economic growth.  There is a drastic need for a change in education policy in this country, and while the NLCB waivers can improve the situation, they are merely band-aids on a much larger problem. Without a new set of reforms, the American education will continue to muddle along.
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Joseph Misulonas is a summer 2012 In These Times editorial intern.
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