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Lessons for Utah from Iowa: Fight for control of education

After the Berlin Wall fell in the late 1980s, central planning was all but discredited throughout the world. The exception, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) notes, was in Washington, D.C., "where every bureaucracy has, since that time, doubled down to insist that central planning be done out of Washington with one-size-fits-all solutions."

That central planning approach is visible in the Obama administration's push for national standards and tests, and through its efforts to craft an executive branch re-write of No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, by offering strings-attached waivers to states. Most recently, the administration made NCLB waivers all but contingent on a state adopting the Common Core standards, creating another strong incentive for states to relinquish control of the content taught in local schools.

The waivers, which release states from some of the most onerous provisions of NCLB, have been offered only to those states that agree to implement the White House's preferred education policies. When combined with the administration's push for national standards and tests, the waivers represent one of the quickest ways states can abandon citizen ownership of education.

If the centralizing impact of the Obama education waivers wasn't already clear, the recent decision by the U.S. Department of Education to issue its first waiver rejection to Iowa — a state well known for its history of local control — makes it unambiguous that the waivers are designed to increase federal control over education.

Why was the Hawkeye state denied this alleged flexibility? Evidently, Iowa's long-standing legacy of school district autonomy prevented the state from being eligible for a waiver.

The U.S. Department of Education informed Iowa that it would have to implement a statewide teacher evaluation system if it hoped to receive a waiver. Because the legislature hasn't vested the state department of education with the authority to mandate such regulations on school districts, Iowa can't meet the federal government's condition.

As U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote in a letter to Secretary Duncan's post-waiver denial, "the Iowa Department of Education lacks the authority to implement such a system because the Iowa Legislature considered the matter and declined to grant that authority."

"It is certainly not the place of the U.S. Secretary of Education to condition relief of certain federal requirements on the adoption of a whole new federal policy agenda that has never passed Congress and therefore lacks democratic legitimacy," Grassley continued.

The senator is exactly right. The U.S. Department of Education has stood on dubious legal grounds from the very beginning of the waiver announcement. While the secretary has waiver authority under NCLB, that waiver authority exists to waive certain requirements for states. It does not permit the Department of Education to offer waivers to states that are buckling under the bureaucratic pressure of NCLB, on the condition that they adopt the administration's preferred policies.

One is certainly hard-pressed to find cheerleaders for NCLB. The bureaucratic law created a tremendous paperwork burden for states and significantly grew Washington intervention into local school policy. But in the midst of congressional deliberations about the future of NCLB, President Obama began offering waivers from the law to states that agreed to implement Department of Education priorities.

To date, 37 states and Washington, D.C. have applied for a waiver from the law, and 26 states have been awarded waivers.

The waivers are sold as "relief" and "flexibility" from the heavy-handed federal law, but come at a steep price to state educational autonomy. States must agree to implement the Obama administration's preferred policies, such as adopting national standards and tests. Accepting a waiver means agreeing to the conditions promulgated by the department, further relinquishing state educational autonomy.

Moreover, the NCLB waivers are emanating from the executive branch, creating a situation in which the White House is effectively re-writing the law without congressional approval.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the NCLB waiver issue is the fact that an alternative to NCLB that provides genuine flexibility for states exists, and doesn't carry with it the strings associated with the waivers. For years now, conservatives in Congress have championed the Academic Partnerships Lead Us To Success Act, or A-PLUS, which would allow states to completely opt-out of NCLB.

States that choose to opt-out would be empowered to use their share of federal funding for any lawful education purpose under state law. And if a state can demonstrate over a five year period that it is able to improve student outcomes, the state can continue to enjoy that flexibility.

It's a far better approach than further concentrating power in the halls of the Department of Education, which is the outcome we can expect if the White House waivers continue.

Moreover, it's an approach to reducing the federal role and providing relief to states that is a product of Congress, as it should be.

Rep. Bishop argues that further centralizing education and nationalizing standards isn't going to solve our education woes. "The only thing we haven't tried to do," Bishop notes, "is allow schools to be free. Go back to what has always worked: the free market. When people have freedom, they make better choices."

While Utah applied for, and secured, a waiver from NCLB, it's not too late to demand genuine relief from federal overreach. And it's certainly not too late to back out of the Common Core national standards boondoggle, and regain control of local school policy.

Lindsey M. Burke is Senior Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation