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Lamar A.
Republican TN

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  • Student Success Act—Conference Report

    by Senator Lamar Alexander

    Posted on 2015-12-09

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    ALEXANDER. Mr. President, the American people have a lot on their minds this week about things happening in our world and in our country, but today we turn our attention to something at home. The Senate and Congress--and I believe the President--by the end of the week will have a Christmas present for 50 million children and 3.4 million teachers in 100,000 public schools across this country, something they have been eagerly awaiting. Today the Senate should pass by a large margin our bill to fix No Child Left Behind.

    A lot has been said about how the bill repeals the common core mandate, how it reverses a trend toward a national school board that has gone on through the last two Presidential administrations, and how it is the biggest step toward local control in a quarter of a century for public schools. That is all true.

    The legislation specifically prohibits the U.S. Secretary of Education from specifying in any State that it must have the common core standards or any other academic standards--not just this Secretary but future Secretaries. It gets rid of the waivers the U.S. Department of Education has been using to act, in effect, as a national school board, causing Governors to have to come to Washington and play ``Mother May I'' if they want to evaluate teachers or fix low- performing schools or set their own academic standards. And it is true that it moves a great many decisions at home. It is the single biggest step toward local control of schools in 25 years.

    This morning, as we come to a vote, which we will do at 10:45, I would like to emphasize something else. I believe the passage of this legislation--and if it is signed later this week, as I believe it will be, by President Obama--will unleash a flood of innovation and excellence in student achievement across America, community by community and State by State. Why do I say that? Look at where the innovation has come from before. My own State, Tennessee, was the first State to pay teachers more for teaching well, creating a master teacher program in the 1980s. Florida came right behind. That didn't come from Washington, DC. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota created what we now call charter schools in the early 1990s. That didn't come from Washington. The Governors themselves met with President George H.W. Bush in 1989 to establish national education goals--not directed from Washington but with Governors working together, with the President involved in leading the way and providing the bully pulpit support. Then the Governors since that time have been setting higher standards, devising tests to see how well students were doing to reach those standards, creating their own State accountability systems, and finding more ways to evaluate teachers fairly.

    My own State has done pretty well without Washington's supervision. Starting with the master teacher program in the 1980s, then-Governor McWherter, in his time in the 1990s, helped Tennessee pioneer relating student achievement to teacher performance. Then Governor Bredesen, a Democratic Governor, realized that our standards were very low--we were kidding ourselves--so he, working with other Governors, pushed them higher. Our current Governor Bill Haslam has taken it even further, and our children are leading the country in student achievement gains. So the States themselves have been the source of innovation and excellence over the last 30 years.

    We have learned something else in the last 10 or 15 years: Too much Washington involvement causes a backlash. You can't have a civil conversation about common core in Tennessee or many other States. It is the No. 1 issue in Republican primaries, even in general elections, mainly because Washington got involved with it. Now Washington is out of it, and it is up to Tennessee and Washington and every State to decide for themselves what their academic standards ought to be. The same is true with teacher evaluation.

    I was in a 1\1/2\-year brawl with the National Education Association in 1983 and 1984 as Governor, when we paid teachers more for teaching well. It carried by one vote in our State senate. So when I came to Washington a few years ago, people said: Well, Senator Alexander is going to want every State to do that. They were absolutely wrong about that. The last thing we should do is tell States they must evaluate teachers and how to evaluate teachers. It is hard enough to do without somebody looking over your shoulder. Too much Washington involvement has actually made it harder--harder to have higher standards and harder to evaluate teachers. I believe we are changing that this week.

    I had dinner with a Democratic Senator last night who plans to vote for the bill. He said he would have given me 5-to-1 odds at the beginning of the year that we wouldn't be able to pass this bill. Why are we at the point where we are likely to get votes in the mid- eighties today in favor of the bill? No. 1, because we worked on it in a bipartisan way. And I have given credit many times to Senator Murray from the State of Washington for suggesting how we do that. I see Senator Mikulski from Maryland on the floor. She has been a force for that as well. Our committee worked in a bipartisan way, and so did the House of Representatives as we worked through the conference.

    The President and his staff members and Secretary Duncan have been professional and straightforward in dealing with us all year long, and I am grateful for that. We knew from the beginning, when we said to the President: Mr. President, we know we can't change the law; we can't fix No Child Left Behind unless we have your signature. We know that. He dealt with us in a straightforward way.

    Then we found a consensus. Once we found that consensus, it made a very difficult problem a lot easier. The consensus is this: We keep the important measurements of student achievement so that parents, teachers, and schools will know how schools, teachers, and parents are doing. There are 17 tests designed by the States, administered from the 3rd grade through the 12th grade, about 2 hours per test. That is not very many tests. Keep those, report the results, disaggregate the results, and then leave to classroom teachers, school boards, and States the decisions about what to do about the tests. That should result in better and fewer tests. That consensus underpins the success we have had.

    Six years ago, in December, we had a big disagreement in this Chamber. We passed the Affordable Care Act, with all the Democrats voting yes and all the Republicans voting no. The next day, the Republicans went out and started trying to repeal it, and we haven't stopped. That is what happens with that kind of debate. This is a different kind of debate.

    If the President signs this bill, as I believe he will, the next day, people aren't going to be trying to repeal it. Governors, school board members, and teachers are going to be able to implement it, and they will go to work doing it. They will be deciding what tests to give, what schools to fix and how to fix them, what the higher academic standards ought to be, and what kind of tests should be there. It will be their decision. They will be free to do it from the day the President signs this bill. It lasts only for 4 years until it is supposed to be reauthorized, but my guess is that this bill and the policies within [[Page S8510]] it will set the standard for policy in elementary and secondary education from the Federal level for the next two decades.

    It is a compromise, but it is a very well-crafted piece of work. It is good. It is good policy.

    There are some things that are undone. Senator Murray has her list of things that couldn't get in the bill, and I have mine. I was glad to see us make more progress on charter schools. I have watched that go from the time I was Education Secretary in the early 1990s, when I wrote a letter to every school superintendent asking them to try at least one of those Minnesota start-from-scratch schools. I watched it go from there to today where over 5 percent of our children in public schools go to charter schools. That is a lot of kids--almost 3 million children--going to schools where teachers have more freedom and parents have more choices.

    What we haven't made as much progress on is giving low-income parents more choices of schools for their children so they have the same kind of opportunity that financially better off parents do. My Scholarship for Kids proposal got only 45 votes here. I thought it was a very good idea that would give States the option--not a mandate--to turn all their Federal education dollars into scholarships for low-income children. That would be $2,100 for each of those children, and it would follow them to the school their parents chose under the State's rules, not Washington's rules. That is not a part of this bill, but we can fight about that and discuss that another day, and I intend to try to do that.

    Today I think we celebrate the fact that we have come to a very good conclusion. We are sending to the President a bill I hope he will be comfortable with. While it does repeal the common core mandate and it does reverse the trend to a national school board and it is the biggest step toward local control in 25 years, what excites me about the bill is I believe it will unleash a flood of innovation and excellence in elementary and secondary education that will be a wonderful Christmas present for 50 million children in 100,000 public schools being taught by 3.4 million teachers.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maryland.

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