Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Fixing No Child Left Behind colloquy

Posted on September 15, 2011

Mr. President, in the world in which we live, every American's job is on the line.  As every American knows, better schools mean better jobs.  Schools and jobs are alike in this sense: Washington cannot create good jobs and Washington cannot create better schools, but Washington can create an environment in which others can create good jobs and environments in which teachers and principals and students and communities can create better schools, along with their parents. 

A good place for Washington to start is with the five pieces of legislation we introduced today to fix the law known as No Child Left Behind.  No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan effort in 2001 and 2002.  President Bush and Democratic Members of the Senate and the House and Republicans as well agreed on it.  By the 2013-14 school year, the law said that all 50 million students in nearly 100,000 public schools would be proficient in reading and math.  There would be State standards, tests to measure performance against those standards, and requirements that the more than 3,000 teachers in America be highly qualified.  There would be school report cards, disaggregated by subgroups of students, and schools that failed to make what was called adequate yearly progress would receive Federal sanctions.  There would also be more choices of schools and charter schools for parents. 

During the last 9 years, Federal funding for elementary and secondary education programs has increased by 73 percent, while student achievement has stayed relatively flat.  Our legislative proposals would set a new, realistic, but challenging goal to help all students succeed and to end the Federal mandates which have Washington, DC deciding which students and teachers are succeeding and failing.

Our legislation would require States to have high standards that promote college and career readiness for all students and would continue the reporting of student progress so parents, teachers, and communities can know whether students are succeeding.  It would encourage teacher and principal evaluation systems, relating especially to student achievement, and would replace the Federal definition of a highly qualified teacher.  It would consolidate Federal programs and make it easier to transfer funds within local school districts.  It would expand charter schools and give parents more choices.  For the bottom 5 percent of schools, the Federal Government would help States turn them around.  Much has happened during the last 10 years, and it is time to transfer back to States and to local governments the responsibility for deciding whether schools and teachers are succeeding or failing.  

Since 2002, 44 States have adopted common core academic standards.  Two groups of States are developing common tests to see whether the students are meeting those standards, and more than 30 States are working together to develop common principles for holding schools and districts accountable for student achievement.  Thanks to No Child Left Behind, we now have several years of school-by-school information about student progress that puts the spotlight on success and puts the spotlight on where work needs to be done. 

In addition, many States and school districts are finding ways to reward outstanding teaching and school leadership and to include student performance as a part of that evaluation.  As common sense as that idea may seem, it was not until Tennessee created the Master Teacher Program in 1984 that one State paid one teacher one penny more for teaching well.  All the sponsors of the five pieces of legislation we introduced today are Republicans.  Many of the ideas were either first advanced or have been worked out in concert with President Obama and with his excellent Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, as well as with Democratic Senators here and with Republican and Democratic colleagues in the House.  In other words, we have made a lot of progress. 

In the Senate, my judgment is that we are not far from agreement on a bipartisan bill, with most of the differences of opinion centering around what I would characterize as provisions that would create a national school board.      We on the Republican side want to continue to work with our colleagues across the aisle and in the House.  Our purpose in offering our ideas is to spur progress so we can enact a bill before the end of the year.  The House of Representatives has passed its first bill to fix No Child Left Behind with bipartisan support.  It would expand charter schools and is similar to the charter school bill Senator Kirk will introduce today.  The President has met with us and given us his blueprint.  The Secretary has warned us that, under existing law, most schools will be labeled as failing within a few years, and he is proposing to use his waiver authority to avoid that.  The Secretary clearly has that waiver authority under the law, and I support his use of it in appropriate ways.  

I am introducing legislation today to make it clear that the appropriate use means using the waiver to accept or reject State proposals based upon whether those proposals enhance student achievement and not to impose a new set of Washington mandates.  

But the best way for us to relieve the Secretary of the need to consider waivers and to help American children learn what they need to know is for us to work together in the Senate and in the House to fix No Child Left Behind. 

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record following my remarks, and following the remarks of all the Senators, the following documents:  Why we need to fix No Child Left Behind; how the environment has changed in the past 10 years; a summary of the nine proposals Secretary Duncan, Senator Harkin, Senator Enzi, and others of us have worked on; a summary of the legislation introduced by Senator Isakson to fix title I; a summary of the legislation that I am a principal sponsor of to fix title II; a summary of Senator Burr's proposal on titles II and IV; a summary of Senator Kirk's legislation on charter schools; and a summary of the legislation that I am also introducing on waivers.