Top Republican and Democratic negotiators over federal education law each took to the Senate floor Tuesday to lay out their sometimes conflicting visions for rewriting No Child Left Behind.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chair of the Senate education panel, emphasized that he wants to shrink the federal footprint in local education, saying the Obama administration has acted as a “national school board” and that Congress ought to cede power back to states to decide how best to educate K-12 students.
“The Secretary of Education has told states what their standards should be, what tests should be used, how to evaluate teachers, how to intervene in low-performing schools,” said Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, university president and governor. “I want to reverse that.”
Congress is making its most serious effort in years to rewrite the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. The law, which governs how the federal government spends about $79 million annually on K-12 education, was due for rewriting in 2007, but Congress has been unable to come to agreement about the proper federal role in public schools.
The law has become so untenable, the Obama administration began giving waivers to states in 2011 to exempt them from its requirements. More than 40 states now have waivers, but to get them, they had to agree to adopt education policies the administration favors.
The administration wants many accountability measures built into a new law, including the current requirement that states test every student annually in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.
It also wants to require states to evaluate teachers in part based on student test scores, and be compelled to take action to improve academic outcomes in low-performing schools, among other things. On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke about these issues as a civil rights matter, saying that the federal government must oversee state practices or return to days when historically disadvantaged children were ignored or neglected in public schools.
Minutes after Alexander spoke Tuesday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the education committee, followed him to the floor and delivered her priorities for a bill.
A member of the Democratic leadership, Murray is a pivotal player in negotiations. While Republicans control Congress, the Senate would need 67 votes in favor of a bill to override a presidential veto. That would require at least 13 Democrats to vote with 54 Republicans on legislation.
Murray earned a reputation as a dealmaker after she chaired the Senate Budget Committee in the last Congress and negotiated a two-year bipartisan budget with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
She has more incentive than others to rewrite No Child Left Behind: Washington state had a waiver from the Obama administration but lost it last year. Washington state gave its school districts the option of using student scores on either state or local tests in order to measure teacher performance while the U.S. Department of Education insisted it could only use state tests.
The loss of the waiver means that Washington had to declare all of its public schools as “failing” and pour about $40 million of its federal funds into interventions such as tutoring that state and federal officials agree do not work.
Murray said Monday she wants to keep the annual testing mandate but wants to eliminate the myriad other tests states and local school districts administer.
“I’ve heard from parent after parent and teacher after teacher in Washington state who has told me that not only are students taking too many tests, oftentimes the tests are of low quality or redundant,” she said.
She said the federal government also must track student progress. “If we don’t hold states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities,” Murray said. “These are the students who, too often, fall through the cracks. And that’s just not fair.”
“Another reason assessments are important is they help parents monitor their child’s progress,” she said. “And if a school is consistently failing to provide a quality education year after year, parents deserve to know.”
Murray also offered an argument designed to resonate with Republicans. “We shouldn’t forget that this law provides the nation’s largest federal investment in K through 12 education,” she said. “It would be irresponsible to ask taxpayers to spend billions of dollars on education without knowing if it’s making a difference in students’ lives.”
Alexander has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 21 on testing and accountability.
“The federal government requires 17 tests (over the course of a student’s K-12 career),” Alexander told reporters after his floor speech. “Almost every parent, almost every public school I know is asking ‘Are there too many tests?’” he said. “I want to ask the question. I want to learn from those outside the Senate: Should we keep the same tests or give states more flexibility?”