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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Discarding “No Child Left Behind”

August 12, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could help Minnesota out of a jam by waiving federal “No Child Left Behind” education policy requirements that are choking Minnesota schools.

It’s about time.

Duncan is achieving, through administrative fiat, what federal legislators have repeatedly failed to do: end a disastrous educational policy. By granting states federal NCLB compliance waivers, Secretary Duncan ends a policy that creates school failure.

Minnesota has an impressive, strong and highly functional public education tradition. Our schools have delivered the Minnesota dream of opportunity, equality and prosperity. Over the past 150 years, we have repeatedly raised the school performance expectation bar and our schools have repeatedly met the challenge.

It’s hard to understand how any policymaker could craft federal educational policy mandating that every student in every school in every school district must pass a single standardized exam, without exception, by 2014. Should one student in one school in one school district fail to pass, the entire school district is declared to be a failed school system. That’s outrageous.

But the worst part? Even though everyone agrees that NLCB is failed policy, Congress hasn’t enacted a replacement. They’re trying now. They tried last year and the year before that. They’ve tried under a Congress controlled by Democrats and Republicans. Yet, here we are, in the second half of 2011, with no expectation of Congressional action.

I’m not surprised that Secretary Duncan is exercising his authority to grant states NCLB performance waivers. I’m surprised that he’s waited this long.

Minnesotans place great stock in our schools. We back our rhetoric with public resources. We’ve created educational infrastructure that trains talented people in teaching’s arts and sciences. We’ve invested in ourselves, creating community prosperity and stability. And, the investments have yielded phenomenal returns.

Minnesota enjoys a high standard of living. We have 20 Fortune 500 companies based in our state, more per capita than any other state. Through Minnesota’s schools, colleges and universities, we’ve created the most flexible, adaptive and productive workforce in state history. Without Secretary Duncan’s proposed waivers, NCLB policy effectively declares that tradition a failure.

Take a good, long look at Minnesota’s schools, both K-12 and higher education. Even with a decade of former Governor Tim Pawlenty-led school funding cuts, can you honestly find wide-spread, systemic failure? No.

So, what’s going on?

In the midst of unsettled, economically anxious times, conservative policy advocates have embraced a public chaos strategy. While they create disorder, sapping public confidence in public infrastructure, conservative policymakers pursue a policy agenda limiting public investment in public systems that serve all Minnesotans. They create cover for their true aim, directing public investment’s benefits to fewer and wealthier people.

“No Child Left Behind” is a terrific example of this strategy. By creating an impossible performance standard—every child must pass the mandated standardized exam—the results allow conservative advocates to express outrage and shock that public schools are failing the public. It’s not responsible public policy but it is a marvelously self-fulfilling prophecy, consistent with conservative traditions of defunding government while attacking it for failing to do what they’ve deliberately prevented it from doing.

In the meantime, while modest income people struggle, our country still fights two wars and gives huge tax breaks to the very richest Americans. Minnesota has its own version of this experience, revealed during the recent budget stand-off and state government shutdown. Conservative policy leaders preserved a lower effective tax rate on the richest Minnesotans while cutting state services and accelerating program costs shift to property tax payers.

Its terrific policy for a few and horrible policy for the rest of us.

While I welcome Secretary Duncan’s action, I prefer that elected officials make the hard choices. That’s the essential nature of representative democracy, warts and all; that we regularly grapple, through our elected leaders, with public policy. Unless, of course, conservative policymakers have a different agenda that manipulates the democratic process to the advantage of a wealthy few.

Minnesota, like the nation, needs federal educational policy that effectively educates young people for a competitive global marketplace. We face enough challenges burdening our schools. The federal government, fronting for conservative policy goals seeking to undermine public schools, shouldn’t be adding to them. Minnesota doesn’t need NCLB; we’ve always been better than that.

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