Alexander: “There’s No Reason Congress Can’t Fix No Child Left Behind and Send it to the President by Christmas”

Says, “I will vote the Harkin-Enzi product out of committee, but it is not yet legislation I could vote to send to the president”; Alexander to offer seven amendments

Posted on October 17, 2011

“If Congress does not act now, our inaction will transform the U.S. Secretary of Education into a waiver-granting czar over an unworkable law that has identified what he says may be as many as 80,000 ‘failing’ public schools, a development even worse than provisions in this draft that would make him a chairman of a national school board.” – Lamar Alexander 

WASHINGTON – In a speech delivered today on the floor of the United States Senate, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said Congress can and should start now to pass legislation to fix No Child Left Behind, saying he would support a bill sponsored by Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) as a “first step in the right direction,” while outlining seven amendments he would offer to “stop the legislation from creating a national school board.”

Alexander continued: “I believe the HELP Committee should start now with this base bill and try to move an improved bill to the Senate floor where there needs to be a full and complete amendment process to further improve it and send it to a conference with the House of Representatives.”

Click HERE for video of Alexander’s speech. Below is the letter he sent today to Senators Harkin and Enzi, the respective Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions:

Dear Tom and Mike,

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in discussions about fixing the problems with No Child Left Behind. 

I support your base bill (the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011) as a first step in the right direction that will enable our Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee to start working now to fix the problems with No Child Left Behind.  I will vote to move it out of committee, although it is not yet legislation that I could vote in favor of sending to the President.  

I have attached a summary of seven amendments I will offer.  Most of these are intended to stop the legislation from creating a national school board that would substitute its judgment for that of governors, state legislatures, mayors, local school board members, parents, principals and teachers.  Hopefully, substitute language including these amendments will be the final product of our legislative work.

Despite these misgivings, I believe the HELP Committee should start now with this base bill and try to move an improved bill to the Senate floor where there needs to be a full and complete amendment process to further improve it and send it to a conference with the House of Representatives.

There is no reason why Congress should not be able to send legislation fixing No Child Left Behind to the President by Christmas.  If Congress does not act now, our inaction will transform the U.S. Secretary of Education into a waiver-granting czar over an unworkable law that has identified what he says may be as many as 80,000 “failing” public schools, a development even worse than provisions in this draft that would make him a chairman of a national school board.  If we were to have such a czar or chairman, Arne Duncan would be a good one, but I do not believe that we should have one in our country.

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The strengths of the base bill are that it moves most decisions about whether schools are succeeding or failing out of Washington and back to states and communities.  It keeps the valuable reporting requirements of No Child Left Behind.  It should help to produce an environment in which states and school districts are more likely to create principal teacher evaluation systems related to student achievement.  It will encourage schools to recognize growth in student academic achievement as well as grade-level performance. The base bill further includes many good provisions suggested by Secretary Duncan and congressional Republicans, as well as Democrats.

The base bill’s main weakness is that it contains provisions that would transform the U.S. Secretary of Education into chairman of a national school board.  Chief among these problems are federal mandates, definitions and regulations for identifying “achievement gap” schools and the “continuous improvement” of all 100,000 public schools.  Although the draft eliminates the concept of “Adequate Yearly Progress” for 95% of schools, these provisions attempt to reinstate it through the back door.  In addition, the bill retains in Washington, DC decisions about whether our 3.2 million teachers are “highly qualified” or not.  It does not sufficiently consolidate programs and actually creates several new ones that have no real chance of ever being funded.  And it does little to make it easier for local school districts to transfer and use federal funds more efficiently or to simplify the burdensome Peer Review process for state plans that must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

There is one other important flaw: the bill is wordy.  It is at least 860 pages.  When several of us met with President Obama to discuss fixing No Child Left Behind, we agreed to take Congressman George Miller’s advice to produce “a lean bill.”  The five bills offered last month by Senators Isakson, Burr, Kirk and I, along with several other Republican Senators, totaled 221 pages. The comparable sections of your draft total 517 pages.  We can be more succinct than that. 

Despite these concerns, I will vote in favor of this base bill being reported out of the HELP Committee and look forward to working with you and our colleagues in the Senate and House to improve the bill so that the President can sign it into law this year.

Sincerely,

Lamar Alexander

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