Alexander Delivers AEI Keynote: “The Rise and Fall of the National School Board”

Tells how senators “of every political stripe” came to agree in 2015 that the best way to educate a child is to restore decisions to teachers and school districts

Posted on March 29, 2017

WASHINGTON, March 29, 2017 — Senator Lamar Alexander today traced the rise and fall of the “National School Board” in a keynote delivered at an American Enterprise Institute event about the law he wrote to fix No Child Left Behind.

Beginning with the dramatic unanimous committee vote on the legislation that would become the Every Student Succeeds Act, Alexander today detailed how Congress came to pass bipartisan legislation in 2015 that restored decisions to those closest to the classroom.

“The lesson of the last 40 years is that the National School Board is inappropriate first because a small federal department of education simply doesn’t have the capacity to evaluate teachers, rate schools, set standards, and approve tests in 100,000 schools in 50 states,” Alexander said.

“Second, we have learned, especially with the Common Core debate and teacher evaluation debate, that Washington involvement can be counterproductive and can create a backlash among those who would probably do the same thing if left alone to do it.”

“Third, ingrained into our big complicated country is a strong preference for local control of schools and a strong skepticism that someone at a great distance can improve on decisions made by those closest to the children.”

Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, has been a two-term governor of Tennessee, a United States Education Secretary, president of the University of Tennessee, and a visiting professor at Harvard University.

His prepared remarks follow:

On April 16, 2015 – after 7 years of Congressional efforts, 27 hearings, many hours of staff and senator work, and—finally a three-day markup where 57 amendments were considered, the Senate education committee met for a final vote on legislation to fix No Child Left Behind. 

This committee represents what is probably the most diverse array of political perspectives in the senate – looking around the room, we have Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and we have Rand Paul and Tim Scott.

And here we were, about to vote on education legislation on which two Congresses had failed to reach bipartisan agreement. There were alligators lurking in every inch of the swamp with this bill.

Twenty-two senators as different as could be. The vote started with Senator Murray and it ended with me. And in the end the clerk read the vote: “I have 22 ayes, zero nays,” he said.

It was a dramatic moment. An emotional moment for me. The room erupted in applause—even the senators were clapping.

So how did we get that moment – where 22 senators of every political stripe agreed that the best way to educate a child in a classroom was to restore decisions to the teacher and the school district – with fewer decisions from Washington? 

I’d like to talk a little today about the law in the context of my time in public life—that’s about four decades.

Specifically, the rise and fall of what I would call the National School Board.

Almost everyone agrees that elementary and secondary education is a national issue—it involves 50 million students and more than 3 million teachers in 100,000 public schools and the future of our country. The more complicated question is: What is the federal role?

National and federal are not the same. A national issue is an urgent concern for the whole country. A federal issue is something Washington is in the best position to solve.

I was elected governor in 1978, a year before Congress created the U.S. Department of Education, which suggested there should be more of a federal role in addressing this national issue.

A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. The report warned: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

To me, that didn’t necessarily suggest more of a federal response. My own view was that the quality of a child’s education depends mostly upon the involvement of the child’s parents, the classroom teacher, and the community. It’s very difficult to improve a child’s education from a distance.

I felt so strongly that way that when I was governor of Tennessee in the early 1980s, I traveled to meet with President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office and proposed a Grand Swap: Medicaid for K-12 education. The federal government would take over 100% of Medicaid, the federal health-care program mainly for low-income Americans, and states would assume all responsibility for the nation's 100,000 public schools.

President Reagan liked the idea and actually proposed it in his 1982 State of the Union, but it went nowhere.

My reasoning was that the national concern about better schools would be best solved if the spotlight were on the people who were really accountable for the results—the classroom teacher and the community.

I wasn’t the only one who thought that.

Governors during the 1980s got very busy addressing the concerns raised by A Nation at Risk.

Dick Riley, Bob Graham, Bill Clinton and I were all elected the same day in 1978, and while we were not all the same party, we worked together and started to do many of the same things in our states to improve our schools.

When I was chair of the National Governors Association and Bill Clinton was vice chair in 1985 and 1986, we focused the governors’ attention on the issue of education for a full year and produced a report called, “A Time for Results”—most of it challenging states and communities to improve schools.

In 1989, President George HW Bush convened the governors to set national education goals in English, math, science, geography and history. And then the governors set about trying to help their states reach those goals, including setting academic standards, creating tests to determine whether students were reaching those standards, and expanding school choice.

In 1991, when I became President Bush’s Education Secretary, the administration created America 2000 to accelerate progress toward the national education goals, but we sought to do it state by state and community by community. We raised private money for what we called New American schools. There was also support for school choice, higher standards, and better tests—all voluntary, not imposed from Washington.

In 1992, at my recommendation, President Bush issued a veto threat on a proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act because it imposed Washington standards for resources at public schools. I wrote the president then that it would constitute “at least the beginnings of a national school board that could make day-to-day school decisions on curriculum, discipline, teacher training, textbooks, and classroom materials…A federal recipe book dictating how to operate a local school board does not make schools better.”

Then about two years later, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Bill Clinton’s administration turned America 2000 into Goals 2000, establishing the beginnings of what I would call a national school board because it for the first time required states accepting federal funds to adopt academic standards and to test students in three grades.

Then in 2002 George W Bush signed No Child Left Behind, which in my view would have been more appropriate for a state education law than a federal law. We all know about its federal mandates, including: “highly qualified teachers” and “adequate yearly progress” defined according to Washington DC standards.

Then in 2009 President Obama’s administration used Race to the Top to provide powerful financial incentives to meet federal standards and actions.

Congress’ failure to reauthorize No Child Left Behind allowed the law to become unworkable—Secretary Duncan warned us in 2011 that more than 80 percent of public schools would soon be deemed failures—and Duncan used states’ need for waivers from the law as an opportunity to require states to adopt new standards, teacher evaluations based on student test scores, and federally prescribed strategies for turning around low-performing schools.

With these waivers came the zenith of the National School Board.

And that led to Congressional efforts to fix No Child Left Behind, first in 2011, then in 2013, and finally –successfully—in 2015.

By then some of the same people who in 1979 had supported creating the US Department of Education—and advocated more of a federal role—were pretty upset with the idea by 2015.

So we started heading in the opposite direction – reversing the trend toward a national school board, restoring responsibility to states, communities and classroom teachers.

As Newsweek said – this was the “education law everyone wants to fix.” There was also consensus on how to fix it: Continue the law’s important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement.

I started out thinking we should get rid of the 17 federally required tests because of my aversion to Washington control. Over time, as I listened to those in the classrooms and in the states, I saw that the tests themselves were not the problem, that they were helpful. What needed to be changed was to give to states responsibility for what to do about the results of those tests.

There was a convergence of forces to propel us across the finish line: a unique coalition wanted this bill passed – governors, teachers, chief state school officers, local school boards.

The bill would not have happened if Senator Patty Murray—and Democrats as well as Republicans—had not demonstrated a commitment to reaching a result despite differences.

I withheld in committee my Scholarships for Kids amendment to allow states to use vouchers. And Senator Franken withheld his amendment on discrimination – knowing that if either of them were to pass in committee, it would jeopardize the ability of the bill to get to the senate floor.

Senator Isakson and Senator Murray worked out a difficult compromise on early childhood education.

As a result, we are firmly on track in the opposite direction from the national school board.

Schools are still a national issue, but there’s a consensus that the issue is not best addressed by a federal solution.

I supported overturning the Obama administration’s accountability regulation first because I thought the Education Department was acting as if it were the Congress. The regulation violated the law in 7 places and exceeded its authority in 16 places. And second, because the regulation did not reflect the bipartisan consensus to reverse the National School Board.

The law does include more of a federal role than existed 20 years ago. It includes what Patty Murray calls “federal guardrails,” such as the requirement that students be tested annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, that states report how students in each school perform—overall and by subgroup—and that states identify and take evidence-based steps to improve their lowest performing 5 percent of schools.

But the law gives states broad discretion in how they design their accountability systems within those guardrails. It provides an opportunity for states to learn from one another’s successes, and from their mistakes.

Federalists do not believe in states’ rights because we think states can always be counted on to get it right.

Right now in Maryland, for example, the state legislature and state board of education are debating how much test results should factor into their accountability system.

I understand the board members’ concerns that the assembly’s approach will interfere with its efforts to hold its schools to high academic standards.

But my goal with this law was to return that debate and that decision right there—to the Maryland state assembly in Annapolis. They should decide how much test results should factor into their accountability system.

What we learned with the Common Core debate was that federal involvement in these issues actually can be counterproductive -- because states were moving along fairly steadily to develop and adopt the curriculum, and the opposition to Common Core really exploded once everyone believed Washington was making them do it.

The Every Student Succeeds was crystal clear that states now make all decisions about academic standards, including whether or not to continue to use the Common Core.

As I saw as governor of Tennessee trying to create the first system for paying teachers more for teaching well, teacher evaluations are hard to do, and fighting it out in the state is hard to do. But imposing it from Washington as the waivers tried to do produces a massive negative reaction from the very people that you need to buy into the system.

I’m a strong supporter of giving low-income children a choice of schools, but my Scholarships for Kids proposal isn’t a mandate—it allows states to make their own decision. 

The lesson of the last 40 years is that the National School Board is inappropriate first because a small federal department of education simply doesn’t have the capacity to evaluate teachers, rate schools, set standards, and approve tests in 100,000 schools in 50 states.

Second, we have learned, especially with the Common Core debate and teacher evaluation debate, that Washington involvement can be counterproductive and can create a backlash among those who would probably do the same thing if left alone to do it.

Third, ingrained into our big complicated country is a strong preference for local control of schools and a strong skepticism that someone at a great distance can improve on decisions made by those closest to the children.

So for my 40 years in public life, I’ve seen the rise of the National school board and its fall.

There is today more federal control of schools than there was 40 years ago, but the new law and the consensus that supported it make it clear that the federal role should be mostly limited to making us aware of how children are performing in the schools and the responsibility for deciding what to do about that performance belongs to school boards, communities, and classroom teachers.

We should be excited about this. In his chapter in Rick Hess’s and Max Eden’s new book, Marty West writes that the last time we reduced federal involvement was in 1982, and that unleashed innovation in the states. My hope is that the same thing will happen now. 

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