Alexander Urges Nation’s 3.4 Million Teachers to Say: “Mr. Secretary, Keep Your Hands off My Classroom”

After receiving NEA’s “Friend of Education” award, asks teachers to send message to Secretary King on Department’s accountability regulation before August 1

Posted on July 7, 2016

WASHINGTON, July 7 – Today Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was given the National Education Association’s “Friend of Education” award at its annual conference in Washington. Alexander told the teachers “the No Child Left Behind era is over; the ‘Mother, May I?’ waiver era is over,” before warning that the U.S. education secretary is attempting to “put those mandates back in through a federal regulation.”

Alexander urged the approximately 10,000 elementary and secondary education teachers, counselors, librarians, and other educational support staff in attendance to send a clear message to U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr.: "Mr. Secretary, keep your hands off my classroom. No more national school board. No more ‘Mother May I?’ waivers. No more telling me how to rate my teachers or whether my school is succeeding or failing,” he said.

“I hope you will remind the Secretary that the new law, which in the Senate got 85 out of 100 votes, says that the path to high standards, to better teaching, and to real accountability is through classrooms, communities, and states, where decisions are made by people closest to our children and not through a distant department in Washington, D.C.”

“I reminded the new Secretary of Education that Congress agrees with Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty said, ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more, nor less.’ Like Humpty Dumpty, Congress chose our words carefully, because we know if the Secretary does not implement the law the way Congress wrote it, the law is not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Alexander stressed an important Aug. 1 deadline—the date by which all public comment on the Education Department’s interpretation of the new law’s accountability provisions are due. Alexander, noting that the Department’s proposed accountability regulations are completely contrary to the law Congress wrote and the president signed, said that “the new law includes some guardrails, to make sure states use federal dollars to focus on the lowest performing schools, on minority students, and students with disabilities.” But, he continued, the law “also has some guardrails on the United States Secretary of Education to make sure he doesn’t start dictating how you run your classrooms.”

The former governor of Tennessee told the group that when he was governor in 1984, “Tennessee became the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. We raised taxes, and we paid master teachers who voluntarily climbed the career ladder up to 70% more than their state salary.” The NEA vehemently opposed then-Governor Alexander’s plan. “So, people assumed that when I got to Washington, D.C., I would try to tell every state to do what Tennessee had done.”  

“Well, I did not, and I will not,” Alexander said.

“I do not believe in a national school board. I know how hard it is to find fair ways to award outstanding teachers, and the last thing we need when you are trying to do that is someone looking over your shoulder from Washington, D.C., second-guessing how you are trying to do it.”

Alexander thanked the NEA for the award, saying, “I am really here to honor you: the classroom teachers of America who helped pass the law to fix No Child Left Behind; who helped reverse the trend from a national school board; and who helped to restore responsibility for children at 100,000 public schools back to the states, the communities, and to the classroom teachers where it belongs. I thank you for honoring Senator Patty Murray, because without her it would not have happened.”

The full text of Alexander’s speech follows:

Thank you for this honor, but I am really here to honor you: the classroom teachers of America who helped pass the law to fix No Child Left Behind; who helped reverse the trend from a national school board; and who helped to restore responsibility for children at 100,000 public schools back to the states, the communities, and to the classroom teachers where it belongs. I thank you for honoring Senator Patty Murray, because without her it would not have happened.

For fifteen years, your classrooms have been ruled by Washington, D.C. But last December, as Lily said, “A dark cloud has just been lifted from our country.” And also as Lily says, “We have to make sure now that things look different for educators in their classrooms.”

Our job last year was to pass a law. Our job this year is to make sure that the United States Secretary of Education implements the law the way that you helped Congress write it.

My late friend Alex Haley once heard me make a speech and he said, “Lamar, if when you make a speech you would say, ‘Instead of making a speech, let me tell you a story,’ someone might actually listen to what you have to say.” So here’s a short story:

Imagine a fifth grade math teacher in East Tennessee, 500 miles from here. Before the new law that you helped pass, the United States Department of Education could decide whether that teacher was qualified to teach, whether her academic standards were challenging enough, whether she and her school were succeeding or failing based upon the result of a year-end math test.

So, as a result, her state and her district required her to spend more and more time administering countless tests geared toward that end-of-the-year test, less time on teaching, and at the end of the year, if her students didn’t meet a Washington definition of adequate yearly progress, parents would receive a letter saying: “Your child goes to a failing school.”

The last Secretary granted some waivers from some of those requirements, but the problem was that it even made the Secretary more of a national superintendent for 80,000 schools in 42 states because Washington then had a new system for deciding whether the fifth grade teacher was effective. Standards effectively had to be Common Core, she still had to teach to the test, and the old goals and mandates were replaced by new mandates and new punishments from Washington, D.C.

But I’ve got some news for you. Because of the new law: Gone are those waivers; gone is the Common Core mandate; gone is adequate yearly progress; gone is Washington-defined, test-based accountability; and gone is Washington, D.C., telling you exactly how to evaluate teachers and telling you whether a school succeeds or fails.

The No Child Left Behind era is over; the “Mother, May I?” waiver era is over. The classrooms of America should look different. The law should unleash a new era of innovation and achievement. It should mean more stability in education policy, less politics, more education. And the new law says that the Secretary can’t put those mandates back in through a federal regulation.

Last week at a hearing, I reminded the new Secretary of Education that Congress agrees with Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more, nor less.”

Like Humpty Dumpty, Congress chose our words carefully, because we know if the Secretary does not implement the law the way Congress wrote it, the law is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Things will look different in your classrooms just as Congress envisioned, and just as you and Lily and I demanded.

There are a lot of Tennesseans here. Some of them know that when I was governor, Tennessee became the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. We raised taxes, and we paid master teachers who voluntarily climbed the career ladder up to 70% more than their state salary. That produced some arguments with the NEA.

So, people assumed that when I got to Washington, D.C., I would try to tell every state to do what Tennessee had done. Well, I did not, and I will not, because I do not believe in a national school board.

I know how hard it is to find fair ways to award outstanding teachers, and the last thing we need when you are trying to do that is someone looking over your shoulder from Washington, D.C., second-guessing how you are trying to do it.

We fixed the law. Now, it’s time to fix a proposed accountability regulation that goes to the heart of the law. It is true that the new law includes some guardrails, to make sure states use federal dollars to focus on the lowest performing schools, on minority students, and students with disabilities.

The new law also has some guardrails on the United States Secretary of Education to make sure he doesn’t start dictating how you run your classrooms. 

The deadline for comments on that regulation is August 1st. So, I hope you’ll let the Education Secretary know this: The era of “Washington knows best” is over. I hope you will tell him: “Mr. Secretary, keep your hands off my classroom. No more national school board. No more ‘Mother May I?’ waivers. No more telling me how to rate my teachers or whether my school is succeeding or failing.”

I hope you will remind the Secretary that the new law, which in the Senate got 85 out of 100 votes, says that the path to high standards, to better teaching, and to real accountability is through classrooms, communities, and states, where decisions are made by people closest to our children and not through a distant department in Washington, D.C. Also, I hope that you will tell him that you expect him to implement the new law the way you and Lily helped Congress write it and pass it. Thank you very much. 

 

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