Incumbent Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) pushes back against federal involvement in education in this ad. (Lamar Alexander 2014 via YouTube)

“As governor, I worked with President Reagan to try to get Washington completely out of our local schools. As senator, I have been trying to stop President Obama from creating a national school board for 100,000 public schools.”

–Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), speaking in a new campaign ad

Sen. Lamar Alexander is fond of easy-to-remember catchphrases.

When the Fact Checker covered the 1996 presidential election, he watched Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, repeatedly tell audiences in Iowa to “Remember their ABCs — Alexander Beats Clinton.” The message was that among the potential nominees, he had the best chance of beating then-President Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, Iowa caucus voters only rewarded him with third place, after eventual nominee Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan.

Now, in this ad, Alexander relies on another catchphrase—“national school board.” This puzzled a reader in Tennessee, who wrote that he followed educational issues closely and had never heard of an Obama plan for a national school board.

What’s going on here?

The Facts

First, let’s deal with Alexander’s Reagan anecdote. In the ad, he’s clearly trying to say he was partners with a Republican hero (Reagan) and is fighting against a Republican foe (Obama). But the only evidence that we can find that he “worked with” Reagan on this issue is Alexander himself.

In speeches and in a 2012 Wall Street Journal article, Alexander says that in the early 1980s he promoted the idea of a “grand swap,” in which the federal government would take over all responsibility for the state-federal Medicaid program and in exchange states would assume all responsibility for kindergarten through 12th grade public schools. That’s certainly the case; he even wrote an opinion article on the plan for The Washington Post in 1982.

But did he really “work with” Reagan on the idea? In the Wall Street Journal article, he writes that he met with Reagan in the Oval Office to discuss his proposal. “Reagan liked the idea, but it went nowhere,” he said. (In a 2010 Senate floor speech, he did not describe Reagan’s reaction.)

In any case, even if Reagan liked the idea, there’s no evidence it made much of an impression. The late president doesn’t mention any such Oval Office exchange in his dairies, though Alexander does show up at one point expressing interest in being U.S. ambassador to Japan. We couldn’t find that the White House ever seriously considered pushing for a “grand swap” of Medicaid for K-12 educations as policy, though the president did propose swapping Medicaid for welfare programs, along with block grants for vocational and adult education and other programs. As Alexander admits, the idea “went nowhere.”

In other words, Alexander appears to be invoking Reagan’s name in service of a dubious claim.

As for the “national school board,” this is indeed a catchphrase. There is no Obama proposal for a national school board. Federal law, in at least three different sections, prohibits the federal government from interfering in curriculum or instructional matters, which is the purview of local school boards — a point that Alexander often cites.

So, what is Alexander talking about? It’s a combination of several things happening at once in federal education policy. First, there was an organic effort to create common standards for schools, what is known as Common Core. This was a state-led effort that began in 2009, but it has been embraced by the Obama administration with a grant-making program known as “Race to The Top.” States participate in Common Core on a voluntary basis, but so far as many as 46 states have adopted it, but a growing backlash has led some states to drop out.

Second, there was growing dismay in schools about the No Child Left Behind law passed during the George W. Bush administration, especially about a provision that required schools to show yearly progress in math and reading proficiency or face punitive measures.  The goal for proficiency was set in 2014, and as Congress could not agree on how to fix the law, the Obama administration began issuing waivers to states — and even school districts — if they agreed to adopt the administration’s education proposals.

Alexander, the senior Republican on the Senate committee that oversees education, has been in the forefront of lawmakers who have attacked this process as undue federal interference in matters best left at the local level.

In April, Alexander challenged Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a congressional hearing: “Please explain to me how using your waiver authority to place conditions on states about common standards, about performance targets, about teacher evaluation systems that are not otherwise required by federal law and in the case of standards, in my opinion, is prohibited by the law — how does that not amount to, in effect, a national school board?”

Duncan adamantly rejected the charge.

“I used to be a superintendent, and I’m not a national superintendent now. And what we’ve tried to do is just very simple,” Duncan said. “Where states want to move away from the onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind, where they want to partner with us and where we want to provide some flexibility, we just say some very simple things. You have to have high standards.”

“I think it’s very important that we use language very precisely, encouraging high standards,” Duncan added. “Again, common, not common. Our goal is high. We feel very good about that. We never have, never will touch curriculum. Curriculum is not standards. Those things get conflated either through — well, I won’t get into why they get conflated. But standards are the bar we want people to reach, which is college- and career-ready once they graduate from high school. How you teach to those standards is curriculum, and it would be the height of arrogance to say anything about it. We never have, and we never will.”

So what you have here is a definitional dispute. The administration says it is not acting like a national school board, whereas critics say it is “in effect” or “de facto” becoming one. We obviously take no position on that, but it is worth noting that the National School Boards Association, a federation of state associations of school boards, has endorsed legislation that seeks to rein in the Education Department’s role as a policy-maker. Clearly the administration’s moves have spawned some controversy.

In researching this issue, we discovered that our colleagues at PolitiFact in 2013 labeled as “false” a similar statement by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) about Obama “effectively” creating a national school board. That fact check focused on the more narrow question of whether Common Core was turning the Education Department into a national school board -– not on the complex interaction with waivers that Alexander has highlighted. Still, that fact check should have indicated to the Alexander campaign that this claim was potential fact checker bait.

Alexander’s staff initially engaged with the Fact Checker off the record but then stopped responding to e-mails.

The Pinocchio Test

No wonder our reader was confused. Alexander errs here by simply asserting that Obama is creating a “national school board” without even a modifier such as “de facto.” (The ad even has a headline: “No national school board.”)

As a catchphrase, it’s a bit too glib, as this is really a debate over standards and whether the administration’s ardent embrace of Common Core standards, in conjunction with its granting of waivers to promote those standards, has limited local flexibility in designing a curriculum. There is no actual national school board.

As for the Reagan anecdote, that also goes a bit too far. Perhaps in his own mind Alexander thought he was working with Reagan on this issue, but on the face of it, the claim appears to be an exaggeration.

Two Pinocchios


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