Secretary of Education Arne Duncan knows how to throw his weight around. Two years ago, he leveraged $4 billion in federal stimulus money into a competitive grant program called “Race to the Top.”

States like Maine changed their laws to add more flexibility and accountability to their educational policy in hope of getting some more federal support.

Most states ended up like Maine – out of the money – but with better regulations, like the law that allows school districts to use student performance in teacher and principal evaluations. That provision is now showing up in union contracts in several Maine communities.

Now, Duncan is using congressional inaction as leverage to encourage states to further reform their school systems, and he’s offering a deal that would be hard to turn down.

Schools around the country are facing a 2014 deadline to show student proficiency in reading and math as measured by a flawed assessment process. If schools don’t meet the standards, they would be forced under law to take drastic steps like firing all of their teachers, whether or not better educators were available to take their place.

Duncan is offering a waiver of the deadline, but at a price. The deadline could be extended if the states adopted a package of reforms that has not yet been assembled. It would not be an “a la carte offer,” Duncan said. The choice is either swallow the whole package or face the deadline.

Maine Education Commissioner Steve Bowen has expressed interest in the deal, as he should. Maine should not sit back and wait for chaos to hit our schools in 2014 because our standards are appropriately high compared to other states’ and Congress has failed to modernize the No Child Left Behind law, letting bills supported by Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins wither on the vine.

We would need more information about the specific reforms Duncan has proposed before endorsing it, but there is good reason to believe that it would not be far out of step with things Bowen is already considering. Education is the policy area in which the administrations of President Obama and Gov. LePage are not that far apart, and had Race to the Top come along this summer instead of in 2009, Maine would have been more likely to get a share of the grant.

The best outcome would be for members of Congress to work together and pass a modernization of the NCLB law before the deadline, but Congress seems too divided to accomplish that, at least for now.

If Duncan can use these proposed waivers to push Congress to act or to encourage states to adopt reforms, he will again be throwing his weight around for the good of our schools.