(Correction: Earlier version said Alexander had taken “ambitious” position on Common Core. the correct characterization is “ambiguous.”
Congress is about to get a new education powerhouse, one who is no stranger to federal education policy.
He’s Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who served as U.S. secretary of education from 1991-93 under President George H.W. Bush and who has opposed what he considers micromanaging of local education by the Obama administration. Alexander, who just won reelection, is a strong supporter of vouchers and charter schools but has taken a somewhat ambiguous position on the Common Core State Standards.
For years now, the most prominent members of Congress in the world of education were Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller, both of whom are retiring. That leaves Alexander,who will take control of the education committee in the Senate and lead the debate on school reform. So what does he want to do? He makes some of his agenda clear in the statement his office released about the midterm election results:
“Yesterday Americans elected a new Senate majority determined to fix our broken system and move our country in a new direction. I intend to help do this in a way Tennesseans know well — to work with others to get results. Americans want senators who know how to do more than make a speech; they want results. Republicans in the Senate are ready to hit the ground running with proposals to grow jobs, turn our health care system in the direction of more choices and lower costs, return control over our public schools to communities and classroom teachers, and put an end to the Obama administration’s unconstitutional overreach into so many areas of Americans’ lives.”
On his Web site is a page that says “No National School Board,” which complains about increasing federal education mandates, a reference to waivers the Obama administration gave to states from the most onerous parts of No Child Left Behind — but only on the condition that they follow school reform efforts supported by the U.S. Education Department. Obama’s signature education initiative, Race to the Top, also linked the awarding of federal funds to states that promised to implement specific reforms.
Alexander has been a strong supporter of school vouchers, which use public funds to pay for private school education, as well as charter schools.
His position on the controversial Common Core is less clear.
Nashville Public Radio reported last month that Alexander was being forced “to defend his ambiguous position on Common Core.” Alexander has appeared with the pro-Common Core Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam as “a show of solidarity,” the radio reported, but when directly asked to articulate his own position, he has hedged.
For example, last May, when Alexander was asked directly whether he was carefully choosing his words when he spoke about the Common Core, he responded with a laugh: “I always choose my words carefully.” Nashville Public Radio reported further on this story, titled “Two Words You Won’t Hear Lamar Alexander Say Right Now: Common Core,” saying that Alexander said:
“It’s up to Governor Haslam and the legislature what the standards are here. It ought to be 100 percent their decision. I think almost all of the problem that’s created by the new academic standards has come because of the perception and fact that Washington is involved in it.”
Alexander once thought more highly of Duncan than he apparently does now. When Arne Duncan was being confirmed by the Senate as education secretary in 2009, Alexander said at the hearing:
“President-elect Obama has made several distinguished cabinet appointments, but in my view of it all, I think you are the best.”