Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: ESSA Implementation and Oversight

Posted on February 11, 2016

Mr. President, last summer by a vote of 81-17, the United States Senate passed a bill to fix No Child Left Behind. The House of Representatives had already passed their version. We had a conference report. We sent it to the President and it was in December that President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act to fix No Child Left Behind. The President not only signed it in a large ceremony attended by parents and teachers and students and people from all walks of life, the President said it was a Christmas miracle. He said that, I think, for a couple of reasons. One, it was good news. Miracles are usually good news, and this was good news for 50 million children, 3.5 million teachers, and 100,000 public schools. They waited eight years for the United States Congress to fix the problems with No Child Left Behind, and they knew that it was difficult to do and they looked forward to the result that we achieved because we achieved a consensus.

There surely was a consensus that this was a law that everybody wanted fixed, but we also had a consensus about how to fix it. People who don't usually agree in the education world said we want to keep the tests. We want to keep the 17 federally required state-designed tests between grades three and 12 so we can know how our children are doing. And we want to report that to the parents and the students. But we want to move out of Washington and back to the classroom teachers, back to the local school boards, back to the communities, back to the governors, the responsibility for our children and our schools. We heard that from the left and we heard that from the right. We heard that from the governors, and we heard that from the teachers unions. And because we all had that consensus, we were able to secure a vote of 81-17 here.

And as I often said last year, this is not that easy to do. Everyone is an expert on education. We've all had some education. It's like being in the Louisiana State University football stadium or the University of Tennessee football stadium. Stands are full, with 80,000 or 100,000 people who know exactly what the next play to call is because they've all played a little football and they're usually ready to say what it is. So that's what we had to navigate, but we did. And as the President said, it was a Christmas miracle and a gift for the children and the teachers and the parents who care about our public schools. Now, the reason I'm here today, Mr. President, is to put into the congressional record a letter to the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, John B. King, a letter from a number of those in the coalition of educators and others who helped to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act. I ask consent that that letter be included following my remarks. 

This is a letter, Mr. President, from people who don't always work together. In fact, in their letter to the acting Secretary of Education they say, "Mr. King, although our organizations do not always agree, we are unified in our belief that ESSA – that's the new education law – is an historic opportunity to make a world-class 21st century education system. And we're dedicated to working together at the national level to facilitate partnership among our members and states and districts to guarantee the success of this new law." 

This comes from the National Governors Association, the School Superintendents Association, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers who all signed this letter. So did the National Conference of State legislatures, The National Association of State Board Education, The National School Board Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Teachers Association. I racked my brain, I can't think of any significant group in the state or local education world that didn’t sign this letter except the Council of Chief State School Officers and I have no idea why they have not yet signed it because they were enthusiastically in support of our bill as well. So I hope that they are also part of our coalition. But here's the importance of this coalition. The coalition that sent this letter is the same coalition that supported passage of the bill, and they know what I know. 

And Senator Murray of Washington state knows – who was the principal democratic architect of the bill – that bill isn't worth the paper it's printed on unless it's implemented properly. This bill marks a dramatic shift in policy for elementary and secondary education. "The Wall Street journal" called it the largest devolution of power from Washington to the states in a quarter of a century. They're right about that. Both the left and the right have grown tired of a national school board in Washington in effect telling teachers and school boards and governors and legislators what to do about their children and what to do about their schools. Those decisions are best made by those closest to the children. We don't get any wiser by flying from Nashville to Washington each week. The fact is a lot of people back in Nashville think we lose a little bit of our common sense when we come here. So this is important.

This is what we usually don't see from Washington, taking large amounts of power and sending it back home where it belongs. That's what all of these organizations say. Their letter says quote – "The new law replaces a top-down accountability and testing regime with an inclusive system based on collaborative state and local innovation. For this vision to become a reality, we must work together to closely honor congressional intent: ESSA is clear. Education decision making now rests with states and districts, and the federal role is to support and inform those decisions." Let me read that again. "Education decision making now rests with states and districts, and the federal role is to support and inform those decisions."

That's what the governors say. That's what the National Education Association says. That's what the American Federation of Teachers says. That's what the superintendents, the legislators, the state boards of education, the school boards, the principals and the PTA say. And that's what the United States Senate said, that we're moving power out of Washington back to the classroom, back to the community, back to the state.

Now, our next year is going to be devoted to making sure that gets done. And our committee, of which the distinguished Senator from Louisiana is a member, will be having six hearings this year with the Department of Education and with many of the people that I just mentioned, to make sure that the law is being implemented in the way that Congress wrote it. The House of Representatives will do the same thing. Our objectives will be the same that are in this letter: work together to ensure a timely, fair transition to the new law. Coordinate with governors, state representatives, et cetera. Promote state and local decision-making.  In other words, make sure that what happens is what Congress said should happen. 

So I want to thank the National Governors Association especially who took the lead in organizing this coalition. I want to thank each member of the coalition for organizing it. I'll be visiting with the governors in a week and I will be suggesting to the governors, after I thank them for their support for the bill, that every single state organize a coalition just like the coalition represented here in this letter. In Tennessee, I think it would be a good idea if the governor and the superintendent work together with the NEA, the State boards of education, the school boards, the principals and the PTA to make sure that in Tennessee the responsibility for the children and the schools and the standards and the progress is in the hands of those in whom we decided it ought to be vested. 

And we at our level in the Congress will keep the spotlight on what's happening here. So there was not, Mr. President, a piece of legislation more important that passed the United States Congress last year. We got a lot of good things done in the last year, but nothing was more important than this. Nothing was more difficult than this. I've already mentioned Senator Murray, the senator from Washington state, who was really superb in working on both sides of the aisle to help get a result that evaded the Senate for eight years.

I welcome the support of this coalition for the very same work that we'll be doing in the Senate. I hope every state will follow the example of these national organizations, and I look forward to a period of innovation and excellence that I'm sure will be the result of this new era of accountability and responsibility and opportunity placed in the hands of those who should have the responsibility for our children and our schools. I thank the president, and I yield the floor.