Knoxville News Sentinel: Opinion: Greg Johnson: Alexander uses newfound freedom

Posted on September 30, 2011

With freedom found after he surprisingly forsook a senior GOP leadership position, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has delved into the details of education, specifically the reform of decade-old No Child Left Behind legislation. In fact, Alexander had begun work on new NCLB laws before he announced his intention not to seek re-election as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

In a media call two weeks ago, Alexander made clear the aims for legislation he and fellow GOP senators introduced. "The result of this legislation would be the end of federal mandates," Alexander said. "A lot has happened over the last 10 years. It is time to transfer control back to the states."

Since NCLB passed, 44 states have adopted common core academic standards and two groups of states are working on testing around those requirements. Forty-four states are also developing student accountability benchmarks.

The plan Alexander is promoting would leave in place reporting of student progress but would end NCLB "adequate yearly progress" requirements and allow states to set their own standards. In an op-ed earlier this week in the New York Times, Alexander wrote, "We agree that all states should aim to make their graduates capable of entering higher education or the work force. But we also believe there are many ways to get there, and states should have the flexibility to find the ones that works best for them."

Alexander's NCLB reform does away with federal "highly qualified" teacher requirements and returns control of teacher and principal evaluation to the states. The legislation would allow the expansion of the number of charter schools and would encourage states to focus on schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent by the state's performance standards.

As Alexander noted, 80 percent of the 100,000 American public schools will likely not meet NCLB adequate year progress standards. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has put in place a waiver process that allows states to avoid NCLB requirements. Tennessee was the first state to apply for a waiver. Earlier this week, Alexander urged Duncan to show "restraint."

"Just because the secretary has every state over a barrel doesn't mean he should be tempted to use this opportunity to become a national school board," Alexander said. In the media call, Alexander said he understood why Gov. Bill Haslam sought the waiver, and he hoped Duncan grants it.

With the removal of the adequate yearly progress requirement and the focus on the bottom 5 percent of schools, I asked Alexander what incentive the other 95 percent of schools would have to continue to improve. Alexander said that with school report cards still in place, the media would play an important role in informing the public which schools were succeeding and which schools were failing. He also mentioned Tennessee's more stringent academic standards enacted in recent years.

The GOP package for NCLB reform faces a steep path in the Democratic-controlled Senate. With his newfound freedom, though, Alexander seems eager to attempt the climb.