Knoxville News Sentinel: Alexander: School reform bill could be on Obama's desk by December

Posted on November 17, 2015

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has made fixing the No Child Left Behind school-reform law his top priority as chairman of the Senate committee that oversees education issues.

The Maryville Republican is on the verge of achieving that goal as the year draws to a close.

The Senate voted 81-17 in July to pass a comprehensive bill that rewrites the landmark legislation and scraps the parts that critics say are no longer working. The House has passed its own bill, and negotiators for the two chambers are close to reaching a compromise and sending the legislation to President Barack Obama for his signature.

In an interview with the News Sentinel, Alexander talked about his push to reform the 13-year-old law and other matters before his committee.

Q: Can you give us a status report on the school reform bill, which you’re calling the Every Child Achieves Act?

A: My hope would be that the Senate and the House conference could meet before Thanksgiving, agree on a bill, send it back to the two houses, and then send it on to the president, and it will become law during December.

This is a bill that, as Newsweek magazine said everybody wants fixed. It has bipartisan support from teachers, governors, school administrators, parents. There’s no excuse for not getting it done. It will end the federal Common Core mandate, reverse the trend to a national school board and restore decisions about schools and children to parents, classroom teachers and communities, where those decisions should be.

Q: How confident are you that you can send a bill to the president in a form that he will sign?

A: Obviously, we’re doing some things President Obama disagrees with. But from the beginning of our discussions, the president and the White House have been very constructive, and we’ve tried to accommodate as many of his concerns as we can. I believe if we can agree on it, the president will sign it.

Q: What are the key differences in the House and Senate bills that will have to be worked out?

A: The fundamental issue was how much authority to restore to states and communities — how much more local control should there be of public schools. The Senate bill that passed is the biggest step toward local control of public schools in 25 years. It doesn’t go as far as I would like, but it’s an improvement. That’s No. 1.

The second big issue was testing. The conclusion we came to was to keep the 17 federal tests — tests the federal government requires, but that the states design and that a student will take during elementary and high school — and report the results of the tests so parents and a community can know how the schools and the students are doing, but put the responsibility for what to do about the tests back in the hands of classroom teachers and local school boards and states.

The explosion of testing, the over-testing that everyone is concerned about, has primarily come not from federally required tests but from the federal accountability system that told states and school boards what to do about the tests. As a result of that, states and local school districts are giving dozens of unnecessary tests because the federally required test counts for so much. Classroom teachers and local school boards know much better than Washington what to do about the results of the tests.

Q: What’s next for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which you chair?

A: We have two big subjects coming up. One is deregulating and simplifying the federal rules on higher education, and that includes the jungle of red tape that is soaking up time and dollars for universities and administrators. But it also includes making the student aid application form simpler and the way students repay their loans simpler.

The student aid application form, called FAFSA, has 108 questions and has now become the No. 1 barrier to students who want to take advantage of Tennessee’s free tuition program for community college. The president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis told me he thinks he loses about 1,500 students each semester because they are intimidated by the form. That is especially distressing when Gov. Bill Haslam’s No. 1 goal and that of most governors is better worker training. So that’s a top priority of mine.

Another is to provide a year-round Pell Grant to allow students to go to our technical institutes, where the curriculum is only one year long, to be able to use their federal Pell Grant that they don’t have to pay back for three consecutive semesters. Now they can use it for only two of the three.

Q: Will President Obama’s free community college proposal be part of your higher education reform bill?

A: In this case, the president is in the right church but the wrong pew. I applaud his focus on free community college, but the way to do it is not through a federal program. The way to do it is the way Tennessee is doing it — to do it state by state. That is the way Oregon is now doing it. The city of Chicago is now doing it.

Q: Will your committee consider the president’s proposal?

A: Someone may propose it, but we won’t approve it. What we’re more likely to approve is simplified federal aid, simplified ways to pay back your student loans and year-round Pell Grants.