Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- NCLB waivers

Posted on September 22, 2011

Madam President, according to the Washington Post this morning, the President and his Education Secretary will announce tomorrow that the Department of Education will begin a process to grant waivers to states from the provisions of No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind, of course, is a law that was passed with bipartisan support in 2001 and 2002 by Congress. We are in its ninth year of its implementation.

It needs to be fixed, and Congress needs to act to fix it. Republican Senators and Members of the House have already offered legislation that will begin to do that, which I will talk about in a minute. But my purpose in coming to the floor is to talk about the waiver requests the Secretary of Education may begin to approve. My request of the Secretary and of the President is that as they establish a waiver process and as they begin to approve waivers, they show restraint and not take unto themselves responsibilities that are the responsibilities of Congress.

The truth is, the Secretary has the States over a barrel. We have about 100,000 public schools in America, and as he has correctly said, about 80 percent of them, under the current law, are going to be deemed as failing schools soon.

The President and the Secretary and we Republicans would like to take the responsibility for determining which schools are succeeding or failing and put that back in the hands of the States. We would like to take the responsibility for determining which teachers are highly qualified and put that back in the hands of the States. That is a part of the legislation we introduced last week.

Substantially, those ideas are ideas the President and the Secretary either have advanced or agree with. So we have a lot of agreement about this. But the Secretary has the states over a barrel. Most Governors want a waiver. Almost every State, from Missouri to Tennessee to Georgia, will be asking for a waiver.

What I hope the Secretary will do is to look at the applications, and if those applications submitted by the states for exemption from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, if they would enhance student achievement, then approve them. If they would not advance student achievement, then deny them.

But the restraint I am asking for is that the Secretary not use this occasion, when the states are over a barrel, to become a national school board and begin to impose on the states those requirements that Congress would not do through legislation and that states ought to be deciding for themselves. This is the request of the states themselves.

The states have been working over the last 10 years in very good ways to take steps forward together. They have created common standards. They have created tests to measure performance against those standards. The chief State school officers are in the middle of creating an accountability system. A lot of progress has been made in what I like to call the holy grail of elementary and secondary education: finding a way to reward outstanding teaching by connecting it to student achievement. This is something Tennessee became the first State in the country to do when I was Governor in 1983 and 1984 and which many school districts in many states are trying to do now.

So the difference of opinion I have, potentially, with this Secretary and this President on what to do about No Child Left Behind may seem very small. Let me compliment the President and let me compliment the Secretary in this way. They stuck their necks out and have taken some positions to help make better schools that are not popular with their natural constituents.

I admire that. I respect that. They have advocated a number of changes in the schools; for example, getting rid of the adequate yearly progress provision, moving out of Washington the responsibility for deciding whether schools are succeeding or failing; changing the highly qualified teacher provision so States can figure that out through their own systems.

All those are things we agree on, Republicans and Democrats. Where we may disagree, and the reason we have not advanced ahead with bipartisan legislation on No Child Left Behind, is what I would call the difference between Washington mandates and approving State requests or one might even say, the difference between a national school board and giving States the responsibility for making their own decisions.

Here is an example of what I mean. There is agreement, as I said, that this process called adequate yearly progress for a lot of schools should not be decided here. We will read in the paper that such and such school is not succeeding or it is failing. It is a good idea for Tennessee or for Missouri or for California to set performance targets to replace adequate yearly progress. But those performance targets ought to be in the states' application and not be required and defined by the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, which could turn it into a national school board.

A growth model, the idea of giving states and school districts credit for making progress, sort of an A for effort, to go along with an A for achievement, that is a good idea. President Bush, in his administration, began to permit that exemption from No Child Left Behind.

But superintendents ought not to be flying to Washington from Nashville and Denver and different parts of America and asking anybody in Washington to approve their growth model or even be required to have one if they have some other way to decide whether schools are succeeding or failing.

Let me take another example that I have a very deep interest in. Teacher and principal evaluation systems related to student achievement. Tennessee became the first state in 1984 to pay teachers more for teaching well. Up until then, not one state paid teachers one penny more for teaching well. In my office this morning were the two Principals of the Year from Tennessee and three representatives of the Tennessee Education Association. Four out of the five were voluntary participants in our Master Teacher Program or Career Ladder Program and were telling me how grateful they were for that.

But let me tell you this, it was a controversial and difficult effort. It was opposed massively by the National Education Association, whose members this morning were thanking me for the program, because it is not easy to determine, in a fair way, how to reward outstanding teaching, particularly if we are going to relate it to student achievement and particularly if we are going to relate it to performance pay.

The best way to do that is to encourage states and encourage school districts to try different ways of doing it and hope they succeed and borrow ideas from one another. This is what the Teacher Incentive Fund has done for the last few years as a part of No Child Left Behind. I fully support that program and hope we will continue giving money to help school districts who want to try different forms of performance-based pay.

But to require a student-teacher evaluation in order to get a waiver from No Child Left Behind runs the risk of school districts all over the country -- 100,000 schools -- being supervised by a national school board.

I have had very good conversations with well-meaning superintendents and others in school districts who say: But Congress has to make us do it or we will not do it. I do not buy that. I do not think you can make schools better from Washington, DC. We can create an environment in which they might succeed. Schools are similar to jobs. We have a national responsibility for them, but we cannot create them here. We can create an environment to make it easier and cheaper to create jobs, private sector jobs. We can create an environment to make it easier to create better schools.

Then, the next thing someone would say is: There is no harm in just saying in a Federal law or in a requirement for a waiver that we must have a growth model or we must have a performance standard or we must have a teacher-principal evaluation program. What is wrong with that?

Here is what is wrong with it. That is not the end of it. Because there is the habit then, every time I have seen it -- one time when we passed a law saying the Secretary of Education could not do it, of creating regulations to interpret what the Federal Government means by growth models, performance standards or teacher-principal evaluation systems, a lot of well-meaning staff members and other people and peer review groups then decided what a teacher-principal evaluation system related to student achievement looks like. That is going to be very hard to do since nobody knows what it looks like. That would be akin to telling people -- requiring them to drive cars before the car was invented.

We have had several good experiments around the country that are identifying good teaching, rewarding performance, relating it to student achievement and relating it to better pay. But it has been very hard to do. No one is absolutely sure how to do it.

The worst thing we could do at this time with teacher and principal evaluations related to student achievement, even though I believe it is the holy grail of school reform, is to impose any version of it from Washington.

I am simply asking the President and the Secretary to show restraint tomorrow. I have a lot of admiration for this Secretary and respect for the President's positions on kindergarten through the 12th grade education. Many of the ideas in the legislation advanced by Republican Senators last week to fix No Child Left Behind were suggested by Secretary Duncan. He has gone out of his way to work with Republicans, as well as Democrats. He has been an energetic, able Secretary, and I support most of his ideas.

For example, he supported the idea -- we agreed to it, Democrats and Republicans, Senate and House -- that instead of reauthorizing this big law, we would fix it. Then we identified nine areas we tried to fix. The Secretary was comfortable with that, and so were Democratic colleagues and Republican Senators. We set a new, realistic, challenging goal to help all students succeed. We agree on that: Instead of a goal that would require 80 percent schools to be labeled as failing, we will have a new goal that says students will be college and career ready when they graduate from high school.

We agreed we should free 95 percent of schools from the Federal requirement of conforming to a federally defined adequate yearly progress mandate. What that simply means is, instead of Washington deciding whether a school in Nashville is succeeding or failing, that decision will be made by the State of Tennessee. The State of Tennessee will be able to do it a lot better today than it could in 2001, because since then we have had common standards adopted by 44 States -- tests of those standards adopted by about the same number. We have chief state school officers agreeing on the principles of accountability systems -- these are the performance targets, growth models, and other such things. In the case of Tennessee, they won the Race to the Top competition, which I also support.

The third thing is that the Federal Government will help states fix the bottom 5 percent of their schools -- that is 4,500 schools picked by the states. The Secretary agrees with that, and we Republicans agree, and I believe our Democratic colleagues agree.

We agree on requiring states to have high standards that promote college and career readiness for all students. We agree on encouraging the creation of state and school district teacher and principal evaluation systems to replace Federal highly qualified teacher requirements. But for us that means allowing states -- if they choose to do it -- to use Title II money to pay for it. We are not going to require it or define it. We are going to let it flourish. We believe in continuing the necessary reporting requirements. This may be the greatest contribution of No Child Left Behind since 2002. It requires reports on how schools are doing by subgroup, not on the average. So we can find out if African-American children or Hispanic children are doing as well as other children. We have this great volume of information now from school districts all over the State, so that we have, in effect, better report cards.

We believe on the Republican side -- and I think there is agreement, in principle, at least, on the Democratic side -- that we should allow school districts to transfer Federal funds more easily to meet their needs and to consolidate Federal programs.

We believe in empowering parents. In my office this morning, one of the State Principals of the Year from Tennessee was from Powell Middle School in Knoxville. Their enrollment is up this year, from 920 to 1,060, because parents were choosing to take their children out of schools that weren't succeeding, and they were permitted to transfer them to another school -- in this case, the Powell Middle School, where they could succeed.

That is my request of a Secretary I admire and a President whose K-12 education policies I respect: Please show restraint. Just because you have every state over a barrel, doesn’t you should be tempted to use this opportunity to become a national school board. Step back, look at the applications for waivers. If they enhance student achievement, say yes; if they don't, say no.

Then one last point. Someone might say, and they’d be exactly right, that the real reason the Secretary is granting waivers is because Congress hasn't done its job. We’re in our ninth year of No Child Left Behind and we should have fixed it 4 years ago when the law expired. It has just continued, according to the provisions of the original law. We have substantial agreement in the Senate, except for these accountability provisions, these differences over whether we are creating a national school board. We should come to a conclusion about this. We should get a result. We shouldn’t create a situation where every Governor has to come to Washington to get a waiver from standards that don't work anymore. That is our job. The Secretary has the power to grant waivers, but he should do it in a limited way and Congress should get to work fixing No Child Left Behind so there is no need for waivers. I call on our Democratic colleagues, with whom we have met dozens of times, to redouble our joint effort to get a result.

This is not a case where we don't want President Obama to succeed, as some have suggested. We want him to succeed, because if the President succeeds on K-12 education, the country succeeds. We substantially agree on how we need to fix No Child Left Behind. We still have a few differences of opinion. The Secretary's regulatory action should not do what the Congress ought to be doing. I respectfully suggest that he should show restraint and we should get to work.