(Correction: Alexander draft has two testing options, not one; he is not taking a stand yet as earlier version said)
Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican from Tennessee who just became the chairman of the Senate education committee, says he is determined to get a bill rewriting No Child Left Behind to the Senate floor by the end of February. To that end, he just released his working draft legislation that calls for reducing federal involvement in local K-12 education, which you can read below.
Alexander is offering two options in the draft about standardized testing. One calls for the continuation of annual testing from grades 3 – 8 and once in high schools, and the other calls for giving local educational agencies power to determine whether it wants students to take annual standardized tests. Education Secretary Arne Duncan just outlined his priorities for a No Child Left Behind rewrite that requires annual standardized testing from grades 3 – 8 and once in high school. Sen. Patty Murray, the key Democrat on the Senate education committee, supports the Duncan/Obama position.
Both Alexander and Murray on Tuesday laid out their priorities for rewriting NCLB, which is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Originally signed into law in 2002, it was supposed to be rewritten in 2007 but has remained in force since then. The Obama administration has provided waivers from the most onerous aspects of NCLB to most states, but only with a promise by those states to follow specific school reforms favored by Duncan. That is one reason Alexander has said that Duncan’s Education Department has served as a “national school board.”
Here’s the working draft, and after that, Murray’s comments about her NCLB priorities.
Here are Murray’s comments given on the Senate floor on Tuesday about her NCLB rewrite priorities:
Thank you, M. President.
“A half century ago, President Lyndon Johnson returned to his old elementary school in rural Texas with a major piece of legislation. At a picnic table on the lawn of his school, and sitting beside his first teacher, President Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – or E-S-E-A.
“Now, our nation had always held the ideal of education for everyone. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘By far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.’”
“The idea of a strong public education, for every child, was woven into the fabric of our nation. But E-S-E-A put that idea into action. It aimed to close the gaps between rich and poor, black and white, children growing up in the crowded neighborhoods of Philadelphia, to the rural districts of Texas, children with every advantage in the world, and kids with disabilities. This law moved our country in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go to close those gaps.
“M. President, in the coming weeks and months, Congress will have the opportunity to make sure we continue moving our country toward this ideal—and work together to fix the broken No Child Left Behind law. Because we, as a nation, still believe that every student should have access to a quality public education, regardless of where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make.
“M. President, education and fighting on behalf of children is what drew me into public service in the first place. When my kids were much younger, I found out their wonderful preschool program might close because of budget cuts. But I knew how valuable this program was and how much it was helping local children.
“So I put my kids in the car and went off to the state capitol to explain to the legislators why they couldn’t just cut this program. But when I got there, and was finally able to get one of the legislators to listen to me, he said something I’ll never forget.
“He said, ‘You can’t make a difference. You’re just a mom in tennis shoes.’
“I couldn’t believe it. I was furious. And when I got home, I decided to do something about it. I picked up the phone and started calling other parents. We held rallies, we wrote letters—and when it was all said and done, the legislature kept the funding for our preschool program.
“Throughout my career, as a preschool teacher, to the school board, to the Washington State Senate, to the United States Senate, I have been committed to expanding educational opportunities and making sure every kid has someone fighting for them and their future.
“But that battle is far from over. Now is the time to take another big step forward, putting the ideals of our nation into action.
“M. President, the current law – No Child Left Behind – is badly broken. And it’s time to fix it. The good news is that this doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. Nearly everyone – Democrats, Republicans, teachers, parents, and business leaders – agrees we need to rewrite this law.
“So today, I want to lay out some pretty basic – but very important – principles that should guide any bill to fix No Child Left Behind.
“For one, we need to work to reduce redundant and unnecessary testing so educators focus on preparing students for college and their career, and also ensures we know how all our students are progressing.
“We need to continue to hold schools and states accountable for delivering on the promise of a quality education for all kids, so they can compete in the 21st century economy.
“We need to improve our schools and give them the resources they need, so every student has the opportunity to reach their potential.
“And we need to expand access to early childhood education so students go to kindergarten ready to learn.
“M. President, what’s clear to nearly everyone is that No Child Left Behind is not working.
“For one, the law required states to set high standards for schools – but it didn’t give them the resources they needed to meet those achievement goals. In effect, the law sets schools up for failure. It set teachers up for failure. And it set students up for failure. That needs to change.
“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. That needs to change, too.
“M. President, we’re still facing inequality in our education system, where some schools simply don’t offer the same opportunities.
“For example, African American and Latino students are significantly less likely to attend a high school that offers advanced math classes.
“According to the Department of Education, 30 percent fewer students from low-income backgrounds reach ‘proficiency’ or higher on assessments, compared with their peers from more affluent backgrounds.
“And, on average, kids from low-income neighborhoods don’t have access to qualified and experienced teachers, like students from wealthier neighborhoods. That needs to change.
“And, M. President, the current law is not working for states either. I’ve seen firsthand how No Child Left Behind is not working for Washington state.
“The law is so bad that the Obama Administration began issuing waivers to exempt states from the law’s requirements. Washington state had received a waiver, but lost it last year. As a result, most of the schools in my home state are now categorized as ‘failing.’
“That means that hardworking parents sending their kids to schools in communities like: Spokane in Eastern Washington, the Tri Cities in Central Washington and Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and many others in Western Washington are receiving letters in the mail that say their children aren’t getting the type of education we expect in our country.
“Not only that, Washington now has less flexibility in how to use federal investments in education. And M. President, that needs to change.
“I recently heard from a woman named Lillian from Shoreline, Washington. Last year, her son was going into the fourth grade in the same school district where I used to serve as a school board member several years ago. Her son has a learning disability, but with the help of teachers and specialists at his elementary school, he had shown great signs of progress.
“But then, Lillian said she got a letter in the mail two weeks before school started, describing the school as ‘failing.’ This left her worried about her son’s education.
“And because No Child Left Behind is broken, so many parents, schools, and districts across the state of Washington are facing similar uncertainty. That’s not fair to students, and that too, needs to change.
“So, M. President, it’s time to rewrite No Child Left Behind with something worthy of this nation’s children and their future. In the coming weeks and months, these are some of the core principles I’m going to be fighting for.
“First, let’s work with states and districts to reduce unnecessary testing, especially by targeting redundant and low-quality tests. This is an obvious step we need to take—and one that you won’t find much disagreement on.
“But M. President, that doesn’t mean we should roll back standards or accountability for schools to provide a quality education. We need to make sure we establish expectations for our students that put them on a path to competing in the 21st century global economy.
“And let me be clear on assessments. First, we know that if we don’t have ways to measure students’ progress, and if we don’t hold states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities. These are the students who, too often, fall through the cracks. And that’s just not fair.
“True accountability makes sure we’re holding our schools up to our nation’s promise of equality and justice. This is a civil rights issue, plain and simple.
“Another reason assessments are important is they help parents monitor their child’s progress. And if a school is consistently failing to provide a quality education year after year, parents deserve to know.
“And third, we shouldn’t forget that this law provides the nation’s largest federal investment in K through 12 education. 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.
“That is a good government principle that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on—and that taxpayers should have every right to expect. So, let’s maintain strong accountability that measures a student’s growth with statewide assessments.
“I believe that annual assessments are one of the most important tools we have to make sure our schools are working for every student.
“M. President, we need to make sure that these assessments don’t lead to unintended consequences. But I would be very concerned about any proposal that rolls back this key student and taxpayer protection and accountability tool.
“And, I believe we need statewide assessments that allows parents, civil rights groups and policymakers the ability to see how students are doing from district to district.
“Furthermore, M. President, to make sure we are meeting our obligations to all students, let’s increase funding for schools that have high numbers of children from low-income backgrounds. Rich or poor, every kid should get a high quality education.
“And, as the ones who are on the front lines of this noble work—let’s make sure our teachers and principals have the resources they deserve to continue building their skills, so they can best help the students they care so much about.
“Let’s improve schools through innovation and with coursework that challenges our students – not just so they earn their diploma, but so their diploma means they are truly college and career ready.
“And M. President, I believe Congress should only pass an education bill that expands access to preschool programs. This is a particularly important issue to me.
“As a mom, and when I was a preschool teacher, I saw firsthand the kind of transformation that early learning can inspire in a child – not just to start kindergarten ready to learn, but also to succeed later in life.
“That’s why law enforcement, business groups, military leaders, and so many others all support expanding access to early childhood education.
“Congress needs to catch up with the Democratic and Republican governors and legislators around the country who support investments in early learning—and we need to make the investments in our youngest kids that will pay off for generations to come.
“So, M. President, these are some of the core principles I’m going to be focused on as we work together to revamp our education bill.
“Providing an excellent education to all students is a national priority, not just because our children deserve it—but because it is one of the best investments we can make to ensure long-term and broad-based economic growth.
“Businesses and entrepreneurs need the next generation of workers to come in and help them innovate, invent, build, and grow. It’s something I hear from Washington state businesses all the time.
“Making sure all students are able to take on the jobs of the 21st century is the only way our nation will stay economically competitive in the years to come. Other countries are investing massively in education and their students—and we simply can’t afford to fall behind.
“M. President, let me be clear on another point. The only way Congress will be able to fix this law is by working in a bipartisan way.
“That means Republicans should come to the table, ready to work with Democrats to get this done. Republicans are in the Majority here in Congress. But parents across the country are expecting us to put partisanship aside and work together for the good of their children.
“And Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and so many of us here in Congress have made it very clear that we aren’t going to accept a bill that hurts students or doesn’t live up to the ideals of our great nation.
“There’s no question there will be some serious differences in the way the two parties approach this—but I’m confident that, just like we did on the budget last Congress, we can find common ground and move forward if both sides are willing to leave their partisan corners and work across the aisle.
“Everyone should be able to agree that this law needs to provide every student, in every school, in every state a quality education. And that’s exactly what I’m going to be fighting for.
“When President Johnson signed the education bill he said he envisioned, ‘full educational opportunity as our first national goal.’
“Our nation’s commitment to that ideal was so important to me and my family. I wouldn’t be here today without it. When I was 15, my father was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. In a few short years, he could no longer work at the five-and-dime store he ran. Without warning our family had fallen on hard times.
“But instead of falling through the cracks, my six siblings and I got a good education at public schools. We all went to college with support from the program that’s now known as Pell Grants. And my mom was able to get the skills she needed to get a job through a worker training program at Lake Washington Vocational School.
“Today, we need to continue to make education a national priority, so more families can seize the opportunities that are only possible with access to a good education.
“So M. President, I’m calling on Democrats and Republicans to work together to fix this law.
“For the child who may not live in the best neighborhood, or for the kid whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, for every student who deserves the chance to learn, grow and thrive…
“Let’s work toward a bill that makes sure every child gets a quality education. Let’s make sure our country continues to have the best workforce, the world over. And let’s deliver on Jefferson’s promise of education as the foundation for freedom and happiness.
“Thank you, M. President. I yield the floor.”