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Christopher M.
Democrat CT

About Sen. Christopher
  • Every Student Succeeds Bill

    by Senator Christopher Murphy

    Posted on 2015-12-09

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    MURPHY. Mr. President, I come to the floor today to congratulate my colleagues on passage of the repeal and replacement of No Child Left Behind, the Every Child Succeeds Act. In particular, I want to thank Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray. It is really an example of how things can work in the Senate when we put our minds to trying to get to good policy instead of simply trying to get to good politics. There is a lot of politics surrounding early childhood education and elementary education.

    [[Page S8524]] There is a lot of hyperbole out there about the role the Federal Government should play in local education--issues such as the common core. Yet we were able to set aside all of those potentially inflammatory and toxic politics and get to a bill that despite those challenges has broad consensus from Republicans and Democrats. It ends up in a place that is really going to support a lot of teachers, students, parents and administrators out there.

    When you look at that vote tally, it is impressive. It is a piece of legislation that has been able to unite progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans. In many ways it is a credit in this Chamber to debate that Senator Alexander and Senator Murray set us upon. They were determined to get to a product that both parties could support. When you start with the idea that we can achieve a bipartisan solution, rather than your starting point being having a debate in order to maximize political impact and political division, it is miraculous what we get. We can all be blamed for falling into that trap far too often.

    Mr. President, like you, my entire life has been spent in and around public education. I went to Connecticut's public schools. My mother was a public school teacher. My wife is a former public school teacher. I have two beautiful boys--one of whom is in the public school system as well. As it is for many of us, this conversation is deeply personal. It is also deeply personal for me as someone who is going to raise two boys in a country whose greatness depends more than ever on the quality of our public schools. The reality is that when my great-grandfather got off of a boat and showed up in New Britain, CT, he was guaranteed to get a good job in one of the ball bearing factories there, regardless of his education. He could get a good wage, a pension, and a decent health care benefit without a lot of skills that he couldn't learn on the job inside that factory.

    Of course, our economy has radically changed since those days. We are lucky that we have declining unemployment. We are lucky we continue to grow jobs, as we have over the course of the last several years. They are totally different kinds of jobs than were available to my forefathers, immigrants who came to this country from places such as Ireland and Poland and worked in those factories. We now have jobs that require highly skilled professionals. We are competitive globally, not because of the price of our workforce but because of the productivity, competence, and educational level of our workforce. We are more dependent now than ever on the quality and capacity of our workforce, which is, of course, dictated by the quality and capacity of our educational system. So getting an education policy right is not just about serving kids; it is about serving our economy.

    The fact is, we have been doing a disservice to students and teachers all across America since the passage of No Child Left Behind. This is a law that by and large was a disaster for us in Connecticut. I am somebody who believes that a strong Federal Government can play a beneficial role in people's lives, whether it is smoothing out the rough edges of the financial system, building roads and bridges, or protecting America from attacks, but the Federal Government has not done a good job in guaranteeing universal, quality education. Why? Because bureaucrats in Washington ultimately have a hard time intersecting with the provision of a service which has largely been administered at a local level. The prescriptive rules that were inherent in No Child Left Behind haven't matched the realities of how Connecticut assesses schools and student performance or how we think it is best to turn schools around.

    No Child Left Behind did at least have one redeeming quality. The legislation required an assessment of every single student no matter where they lived, what their background was, or what their learning ability was. The law did shed light on some unjustifiable, unconscionable disparities that existed in this country, and it put pressure on school districts and States to address those disparities. The law brought attention to the fact that there were disparities, such as the fact that the graduation rate for African Americans in this country is 16 points lower than that of their white peers. The results showed disparities with Latino fourth graders. Only 25 percent of them are meeting expectations for their grade level in math, which is half the rate of their white peers.

    The law also shed light on the practices within school districts, such as school discipline. If you are an African American and commit the exact same offense in this country inside of a school, you are twice as likely to get suspended or expelled as your white peer.

    No Child Left Behind forced us to understand, recognize, and address those disparities. The challenge with this repeal and rewrite was to hand control back to States and local districts without removing the imperative to identify those disparities and cure them.

    I voted against the version of this bill that was originally passed by the U.S. Senate, and I did so because I labored under the belief, as a member of the HELP Committee, that it is not worth passing a national education law if it isn't also a civil rights law. I wasn't convinced that we had that balance in the bill that initially came before the Senate. I am grateful to Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, Representatives Kline, Scott, and others who managed to get that balance right in the conference committee.

    Today we were able to pass a bill that is both a proper return of authority to the States and a preservation of civil rights protections that are going to guarantee the perpetuity of the small, positive legacies of No Child Left Behind.

    What we have in the bill is a recognition that school systems should identify the 5 percent of schools that are the lowest performing schools and have specific plans to attack those schools and turn them around. Those interventions will be decided at the local and State level rather than at the Federal level.

    There is a requirement in this bill to identify what we call dropout factories--schools in which a disproportionate number of students show up freshman year but don't graduate. Similarly, States have to have a plan to turn those schools around, dictated by decisions that are made at the local level.

    Lastly, this bill contains a provision that requires us to continue to track the performance of certain subsets of students, whether they are minority students, disabled students, poor students, or non-English speaking students. Again, it requires those vulnerable populations that may not be hitting the goals that are set by the State or school district to have interventions to try to do better. All of the accountability will occur locally, but the mandate is to pay attention to those lower performing schools or those populations that sometimes get the short end of the stick within a school system or State educational system and ensure that they get special attention.

    I think this is the right balance. This is a bill that rightfully returns power to States and school districts but retains civil rights protections that have been the foundation of our Federal education policy since the 1950s and 1960s.

    I am also happy that there were a number of other civil rights wins in this bill. States have to note on their report cards indicators of school climate and safety. They have to disclose rates of suspension and expulsion, school-based arrests, and referrals to law enforcement so we can get a better handle on whether minority students are being treated fairly when it comes school discipline policies.

    States have to submit plans on how they will reduce the use of discipline practices that threaten student safety, including seclusion and restraint. Increasingly, school districts are relying on the restraint of kids by binding their hands and feet or the seclusion of children by locking them in padded rooms as a means of discipline. In almost all cases, those means of discipline make the underlying behavior worse, not better. They disproportionately affect disabled kids and children with autism whose school districts unfortunately don't understand their students' issues as well as they should. This legislation will require States to submit plans as to how they will reduce the use of seclusion and restraint.

    Finally, this bill retains the requirement that every kid, regardless of learning ability, should be expected to [[Page S8525]] meet the same standard. This bill still allows for 1 percent of students to take an alternate assessment, but it requires the majority of special education students, or students with learning disabilities, to be tested against their nondisabled peers. They will have to compete against their nondisabled peers in the workforce, so they should be measured against their nondisabled peers while they are in the school system. Those are all important wins as well.

    In the end, as someone who was educated in the public school system and spent his lifetime around teachers, I know that No Child Left Behind not only sucked the effectiveness out of schools, but it also sucked the joy out of learning and teaching because so much of it was driven toward that test which became the only measurement of what a good school is.

    I am a parent who is deeply involved in looking at schools and deciding which one is right for my kid. While I pay attention to the test scores that come out of that school, that is not the beginning and end of my analysis. I take careful pains to meet with the administrators, talk to other parents, look at their curriculum, and look at other measurements, such as attendance and graduation rates, in order to build a full picture of what a good school is.

    Now States will be able to devise systems of measuring schools that mirror the way almost every responsible parent measures schools--in a comprehensive, robust way that doesn't just look at that test. Perhaps more importantly, as we try to grow a healthy economy that recognizes the strengths we have and the quality of our workforce under this new law, the Every Child Succeeds Act, we will be able to create a new generation that will have great innovators, great leaders, great mold breakers, and not just great test takers.

    Congratulations to Senator Alexander and Senator Murray, and many others, like Senator Booker and Senator Warren, who worked closely with me on the accountability provisions.

    This is a really important day for teachers, students, and parents all across the country. It is also a pretty good day for us when we get to come together and do something very important in a bipartisan pay way.

    I yield the floor.

    I suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The senior assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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