Federal "Ed-Flex" rules could free schools from red tape

Michigan considers innovative state program

Michigan may join ten other states participating in a federal program designed to free public schools from certain federal rules, if several state legislators get their way.

The "Education Flexibility Partnership Program," or Ed-Flex, first passed by Congress in 1994, allows the U.S. Secretary of Education to delegate to states the authority to waive selected federal education requirements if states agree to a performance contract with the federal government.

"Ed-Flex gives states that are committed to accountability and reform more flexibility to use federal resources to improve the quality of education for all children," according to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. "But we have to see results."

Before states can participate in Ed-Flex, their respective legislatures must first pass enabling legislation. To date, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, Delaware, Colorado, Vermont, Maryland, and Texas have passed such legislation. House bills 4760 and 4761, if passed into law, would make Michigan the eleventh Ed-Flex state.

But the bills, originally sponsored by state Reps. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland; Tom Meyer, R-Bad Axe; and Barb Vander Veen, R-Allendale, are not without controversy.

The Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state's largest union of teachers and other school employees, opposes the bills because it believes school districts already have wide latitude with regard to state and federal public school regulations. According to a recent issue of MEA Voice, the MEA's newsletter, "No need has been shown for such blanket exemption from the rules and laws regulating public education. In 1996 the [Michigan] Legislature drastically reduced the rules by adopting a major overhaul of the school code. At that time districts were granted so-called general power, which is defined as the power to do everything deemed appropriate by the district that is not specifically prohibited by law or regulation."

The Ed-Flex enabling bills, passed by the Michigan House in October 2001 and now under consideration in the Senate, would give the state superintendent of public instruction authority to effectively waive some regulatory provisions of federal programs as well as certain state rules.

"This gives the schools all the leverage and flexibility they need," State Rep. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, told the Lansing State Journal.

Some opponents argue that Ed-Flex would diminish the Michigan Legislature's authority by giving the state superintendent too much power to grant waivers to regulations.

"Enactment of the measure would potentially relinquish the Legislature's role in setting education policy," State Rep. Rose Bogardus, D-Davison, told the Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS), a Lansing newsletter covering state politics. "Ultimately, it's like turning over one third of the state budget to someone . . . we don't even know who it will be."

Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, said Ed-Flex is unnecessary. During the legislative hearings on H.B. 4760 and 4761, he challenged the bills' proponents to provide examples of school districts that have applied for waivers under the current system and been denied. No examples were given, according to MIRS. And no school official could cite any particular requirement his school district would apply to waive using the process that would be established under the Ed-Flex enabling legislation, according to a nonpartisan House legislative analysis.

Ed-Flex in action

Not all federal rules can be waived under Ed-Flex. Regulations under the Civil Rights and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act cannot be waived, nor can any waivers be granted that would undermine the purpose or intent of those laws.

So how does Ed-Flex work in practice?

In Massachusetts, one federal requirement would have made three schools in Massachusetts no longer eligible for funds under Title I, a federal grant program serving children with learning needs in basic skills. Compliance with the requirement would have eliminated math and science assistance for 300 students. Under Ed-Flex, the schools were allowed to waive the requirement and allow eight teachers to return and continue providing the reading and math services with Title I funds.

Ed-Flex opponents argue that simply shifting authority to grant waivers from the U.S. Department of Education to the state superintendent will do little to improve school quality. Whereas, advocates see Ed-Flex as a way to cut red tape and lower administrative costs.