Knoxville News Sentinel: Education reform bill shows compromise still possible in Congress

Posted on August 10, 2015

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander had been chairman of the Senate committee over education for just a week when he began circulating the draft of a bill intended to do what other Congresses had not: Fix the Bush-era No Child Left Behind school-reform law, which many experts agreed was no longer working.

But the top Democrat on the committee didn't like what she saw. So she delivered a blunt message to the Tennessee Republican.

"I said, ‘Do you want to just have a bill to fight about or do you really want to fix a broken law?'" said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "To his credit, he wants to really fix a broken law."

The candid exchange between the two lawmakers, both of whom have reputations as dealmakers, set the stage for weeks of negotiations that eventually produced a bipartisan bill that sailed through the Senate in late July on an 81-17 vote. Just as important as the bill's content was the message it sent: Compromise is still possible — even in Washington.

"It really took an extraordinary effort — there was a crocodile lurking every 100 feet that could have derailed this bill," Alexander said. But, "I think we showed the Senate a model of what can be done."

Given the partisan divisiveness that at times has crippled Congress, "the only way you get things done is for people to feel they are part of the conversation, that they have policies in (a bill) that they can support, and that it is not a partisan document," Murray said. "That is exactly how we are approaching all of the issues we work on."

What the two senators managed to achieve is extraordinary and encouraging, said Jim Douglas of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit that promotes negotiation and dialogue in policymaking.

"It's frankly the way the Senate used to work," said Douglas, a former Vermont governor. "I hope we're past this period of stasis, of gridlock, of accomplishing so little, and on to a new time where senators — and we hope some of the House, as well — can work across the aisle."

Although the No Child Left Behind revision got off to a shaky start, Alexander and Murray approached the task with a couple of common goals that quickly got them back on track: Both believed the 13-year-old law isn't working. Both wanted to fix it.

"Both of us shared a goal of actually legislating and getting something done, and No Child Left Behind left us a perfect opportunity," Murray said. "It is a law that is not well liked. It is not working well. And we both agreed on the principle that this (revision) needs to be signed into law."

Murray, known for working out a bipartisan budget agreement two years ago with U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., suggested she, Alexander and their staffs try to negotiate a bipartisan education bill that each of them could then attempt to sell to their respective caucuses. No Child Left Behind had expired eight years earlier, but attempts to revise and fix it in the last two Congresses collapsed under heavy partisanship.

Alexander, who stepped down four years ago from a powerful Republican leadership position saying he wanted to work with Democrats to solve problems, took her advice.

"It turned out to be very good advice," he said, "and that's exactly what we did."

Alexander and Murray had never worked closely before, so while they were still sizing each other up, Alexander told her a story that former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker had relayed to him years ago.

When Baker became the Senate majority leader in 1981, he went to the Democratic leader, U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and made a pledge: "I won't surprise you, if you won't surprise me."

Byrd agreed, and the two lawmakers kept a "no surprises" relationship for the four years they worked together.

Alexander and Murray soon developed a "no surprises" working relationship of their own. Alexander knew Murray was passionate about certain issues, such as expanding early childhood education, and Murray knew Alexander felt strongly about giving states the opportunity to let federal dollars follow children to whichever public school they attend.

But the senators also knew "if we wanted a result, our job was not to embarrass each other but to make it possible for us to work with other senators," Alexander said.

The compromise the two senators eventually reached, announced in April and rebranded as the "Every Child Achieves Act," kept in place federal testing requirements enacted under No Child Left Behind but gave states the freedom to decide how schools, teachers and students would be held accountable. The result also barred the federal government from mandating or offering incentives to states to adopt any particular set of standards, such as Common Core, which has been particularly controversial in Tennessee.

No one got everything they wanted. Murray had to settle for a new grant program instead of broadly expanding early childhood education. Alexander was unable to get school choice included in the bill. Other senators were given the chance to put their imprints on the legislation. In just one week, the Senate considered 177 amendments and adopted 65.

On July 16, the bill cleared the Senate with overwhelmingly bipartisan support. But other crocodiles are lurking. The House has passed its own education reform bill, and negotiators will have to work out the differences in the two versions if they are to send a measure to President Barack Obama.

Alexander said he's optimistic a compromise can be forged. Murray also is hopeful but warns, "if we step in and get bit by a crocodile, we're done. So managing through that and making sure everyone feels they are part of it and gets something out of it is something we'll all have to work on."

Meanwhile, Alexander and Murray plan to take the same bipartisan approach to other issues before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, including reforming higher education and modernizing the way drugs and medical devices are developed and approved.

Other lawmakers also have started to copy the Alexander-Murray model. In late July, the leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee —U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. — announced a bipartisan agreement on sweeping energy legislation.

"Bipartisanship is blooming," Douglas said, pointing to other recent examples in both the Senate and the House. "Let's hope it continues to blossom."