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No More Carrots, Lots More Stick

The increasingly imperious Arne Duncan.

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By FREDERICK M. HESS AND MAX EDEN
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Duncan took the astonishing step of issuing waivers directly to eight California districts this summer, allowing them to operate under a different set of federal policies than the other 1,000 districts in California. Even the left-leaning New America Foundation thought this was “opening Pandora’s box.”

Last month, the Department of Education warned three states, Kansas, Oregon, and Washington, that their waivers were at risk because they were failing to abide by the promises on teacher evaluation they’d made to earn their conditional waivers—even though NCLB doesn’t give the feds any control over state teacher evaluation, and even though no one in the Department of Education has explained what’s distinctive about these three states when many of the dozens of states with waivers have also broken various commitments. Duncan has turned into Dean Wormer from Animal House, putting states on “double-secret probation” when they displease him.

After being conspicuously absent from the NCLB reauthorization debate, Duncan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post faulting Congress for not passing a bill—hypocritical, given that it was Duncan’s use of waivers that alienated even moderate Republicans like Senator Alexander and helped blow the slender chance of a deal. Truth is, the administration is content to let Duncan legislate from the seventh floor of the Department of Education. The White House gets what it wants without reauthorizing the long-overdue NCLB, and it gets to snipe at Congress for not acting to boot. In legislating by fiat, Duncan is ensuring that partisan fissures over the Common Core are likely to grow and that conservatives will have to step in to push back on this supersizing of the federal role. Arne Duncan may still see himself as a champion of bipartisan reform, but he’s now governing more like an octopus than a cabinet secretary.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Max Eden is a research assistant.

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