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Patty M.
Democrat WA

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  • Student Success Act—Conference Report

    by Senator Patty Murray

    Posted on 2015-12-08

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    MURRAY. Madam President, 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson rushed to the old elementary school he had once attended and with him he had a piece of major legislation. At a picnic table on the lawn of the school, President Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act--or ESEA. He said that with this law, he envisioned ``full educational opportunity as our first national goal.'' Our Nation has always held the ideal of education for all, but in 1965 ESEA put that idea into action. It aimed to close the education gaps between rich and poor, Black and White, kids from rural areas and kids from big cities. In doing so, ESEA took a step forward for civil rights.

    Today we have a chance to reauthorize that civil rights law to continue what President Johnson called our ``first national goal.'' We have a chance to finally move away from the No Child Left Behind Act, and we have a chance to send the Every Student Succeeds Act to the President's desk to help ensure all kids have access to a quality education regardless of where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make.

    I appreciate the tireless work of Chairman John Kline and Ranking Member Bobby Scott in the House and their staffs. I especially want to thank my partner here in the Senate, the chairman of the HELP Committee and senior Senator from Tennessee, Senator Lamar Alexander. The chairman had an opportunity to go down a partisan road, but instead he committed to work with me earlier this year to get this important bill done. I was very proud to work with him and with many of our colleagues to break through the gridlock and keep this bill moving forward. Together we passed our bill through the HELP Committee with strong bipartisan support. We passed our bill in the Senate with strong bipartisan support. We got approval from our bicameral conference committee with strong bipartisan support. Last week the House passed this final legislation with strong bipartisan support. And today I hope our colleagues will approve this final bill with the same bipartisan spirit that has guided our progress this far.

    Nearly everyone agrees that No Child Left Behind is badly broken. I have heard from parent after parent and teacher after teacher about how the law overemphasized testing and how oftentimes those tests are redundant or unnecessary. I have seen firsthand how this law is not working for my home State of Washington. No Child Left Behind issued one-size-fits-all mandates but failed to give the schools the resources they needed to meet those standards.

    These mandates were so unworkable that the Obama administration began giving States waivers from the law's requirements. My State lost its waiver last year. Parents across the State got a letter in the mail saying their child's school was failing, and teachers were left working as hard as ever, knowing their ``failing'' label didn't reflect the reality in their classrooms.

    A few months ago, I heard from a teacher in Seattle named Lyon Terry. He has taught school for more than 17 years and pours his energy into engaging with his students. He starts the morning by playing songs on his guitar, keeps his students laughing with jokes, and every day he tries to create an environment where kids want to come to school. Despite Mr. Terry and his fellow teachers' hard work, his school was labeled as failing. That is not fair to teachers like Mr. Terry, it is not fair to the parents who need confidence in the education their kids get at public schools, and it is not fair to students who should never have to bear the consequences of this broken law.

    Fixing No Child Left Behind has been one of my top priorities for students, families, and communities back home in Washington State and across the country. Back in January we didn't know there would be a path to compromise on a bill to reauthorize the Nation's K-12 law, but I started out with several principles and Washington State priorities that I would be fighting for.

    First, I knew we needed to ensure that schools and States provided a quality education to all our students because we already know what happens when we don't hold them accountable for every child. Inevitably, it is the kids of color or kids with disabilities or kids learning English who too often fall through the cracks. I said back in January and I will repeat that true accountability means holding up our schools to our Nation's promise of equality and justice.

    I knew we had to give schools and teachers resources they need so they can help their schools reach full potential because in some schools students don't have the same opportunity to graduate ready for college and careers in the 21st-century economy like other students do.

    I knew we should only pass an education bill that would help expand access to early childhood education because giving more students the chance to start kindergarten ready to learn is one of the smartest investments our country can make.

    I am proud to report that our bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act, takes major strides on those priorities and [[Page S8452]] much more. The Every Student Succeeds Act will put an end to the one- size-fits-all mandates of No Child Left Behind. It will end the era of State waivers. That will give teachers and parents in my State of Washington and across the country some much needed certainty.

    Our bipartisan bill will also reduce reliance on high-stakes testing so teachers and students can spend less time on test prep and more time on learning. I know that is going to be a major relief for teachers and principals, such as high school principal Lori Wyborney in Spokane, WA. She told me she wants to see some commonsense policies for testing. That is what our bill will help to do.

    While the Every Student Succeeds Act gives States more flexibility, it also includes strong Federal guardrails to hold schools and States accountable. Our bill will make sure schools work to close achievement gaps that too often hurt kids from low-income backgrounds, students of color, those learning English, or those with disabilities. For schools that struggle the most to help students succeed and for high schools where more than a third of their students fail to earn a diploma, our bill will take steps to make sure they improve.

    A couple of weeks ago, I met a parent named Duncan. He has a son in second grade in the Highland public schools, and Duncan is active in their PTA. Many of the kids in his school district struggle with poverty. Duncan has said he has seen firsthand how, in districts like this, ``every dollar matters.'' In the Every Student Succeeds Act, I fought hard to make sure that Federal resources go to the schools and districts that need them the most by rejecting a proposal known as portability. If enacted, portability would have siphoned off money from the schools with the highest concentration of students in poverty and sent it to more affluent schools. Our bill protects schools with students in low-income areas and upholds our responsibility to invest Federal resources where they are needed the most.

    Even so, many schools and districts don't get equal access to the resources they need to help students learn, grow, and thrive. These are things such as offering AP classes, how much funding districts spend on each student, access to preschool, and many more. Our bill will require all schools to report on these issues to help shine a light on resource inequality.

    Our bipartisan bill will help improve and expand access to preschool programs. Before I ever thought about running for elected office, I taught preschool in a small community in my home State of Washington. I remember that the first day with new students would always start the same way: Some kids wouldn't know how to hold a pencil or crayon or how to turn a page in a book. But over the first few months, they would start to catch on. They learned how to listen at story time. They learned how to stand in line for recess. By the time they left for kindergarten, they had those basic skills and many more, so they were ready to tackle a full curriculum in school.

    I have seen firsthand the kind of transformation early learning can inspire in a child, and I am so glad that for the first time, our Nation's primary education law will invest in early childhood education. I fought hard for this because I know that investing now in preschool will payoff for years to come.

    Strong Federal guardrails for accountability, shining a light on resource inequity, reducing the reliance on high-stakes testing, and increasing access to preschool are some of the great things in this bill, but almost as important is what this bill represents. Gridlock and dysfunction have come to define Congress over the past several years, but on an issue as important as education and on a law as broken as No Child Left Behind, we worked together and found a way to find common ground.

    It is not the bill I would have written on my own. I know it isn't the bill Republicans would have written on their own. That is the nature of compromise. We put partisanship aside and proved that Congress can get results for the American people, and that kind of bipartisanship is what we need more of here in Congress.

    With the legislative process for this bill coming to an end, I am looking ahead to the future. When all students have the chance to learn, we strengthen our workforce, our Nation grows stronger, and our economy grows from the middle out, not from the top down. We empower the next generation of Americans to lead the world.

    As proud as I am that we have come this far on the Every Student Succeeds Act, we always have to keep improving educational opportunities. I am going to see to it that this bill is implemented effectively, that schools and teachers get the resources they need, and that students have access to the programs that help them succeed in the classroom and beyond. I am going to keep pushing to build on the progress we have made in this bill and make sure more students start school on a strong footing. I am going to keep fighting to make college more affordable and reduce the crushing burden of student debt. I am going to keep working every single day to make sure our government is doing everything possible to help students in Washington State and across the country. Reauthorizing ESEA isn't the finish line; for me, it is more of a milestone in an ongoing commitment to swing open more doors for Americans.

    I am asking all of my colleagues here today to join me. Let's fix this No Child Left Behind law. Let's show teachers and principals that we are on their side. And let's help instill educational opportunity as our first national goal and grow our Nation stronger for generations to come.

    In a few minutes, as the chairman said, we will be voting on cloture to end debate so that we can move to passage of this bill. Along with him, I thank all of our staff. When we get to the final bill, I want to name them as well. They have put in an incredible amount of time, work, and hours to help get to this agreement. Again, I thank all of our staffs on both sides of the aisle and in the House. I will say more about that later, but I truly want to thank Chairman Alexander for taking the time to be thoughtful, to work with us, and to find a path forward for compromise on a law that was broken that needed to be fixed and that we are about to pass.

    Thank you, Madam President.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Tennessee.

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