Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Fixing No Child Left Behind and the Sen. Harkin-Sen. Enzi bill

Posted on October 17, 2011

Mr. President, last month several Republican Senators came to the floor and offered legislation to fix No Child Left Behind, the legislation that was passed nearly ten years ago to try to address our nation's 100,000 public schools. In that legislation we sought to fix problems with the law, not just to create another big reauthorization bill. And the ideas that we had weren't all our ideas. They included many ideas from President Obama, his excellent education secretary, Secretary Duncan, and as well as Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

They included having a more realistic goal than No Child Left Behind. The original goal set in 2001 would, according to Secretary Duncan, create an unworkable situation where 80,000 of 100,000 public schools might be identified as failing within the next few years. A second goal of our legislation was to move decisions about deciding whether schools and teachers were succeeding or failing out of Washington, D.C. back to state and local governments.

A lot has happened in the last ten years in the states, really the last 20 or 25 years, but especially in the last ten. We have better reporting requirements from No Child Left Behind, we have new state common standards, and higher state academic standards.  We have new state tests that have been created, not here, but by the states and now states are working together to create common principles on what they call accountability systems. So there is a much better chance that states and local school districts can create an environment where students learn what they need to know and be able to do.

Our legislation encourages states to create what I think is the holy grail of public education and that is teacher and principal evaluation systems related to student achievement. I know from experience that's hard to do. In 1983 and 1984, when I was Governor of Tennessee, we became the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. It took us a year and a half and a huge battle with the National Education Association in order to put it in place but 10,000 teachers became master teachers, and it was a good first step.

Tennessee is leading on this again. Here is my local newspaper this morning: “evaluations of teachers contentious.”  There is nothing more contentious then teacher and principal evaluation, and the last thing we need is Washington sticking its nose into that, other than to create an environment where state and local governments can use federal money to pay for their own programs, their own state and local programs.

Finally, we proposed consolidating programs, making it easier for school districts to transfer federal money and expand choices and expand charter schools. 

Now, today, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate education committee, the HELP committee as we call it, have introduced another draft piece of legislation to fix No Child Left Behind. I intend to vote to move this bill out of committee, although it is not yet the kind of legislation that I would be willing to vote to send to the President. But it's a good place to start.

There's a good deal of agreement in terms of what we want to do in our legislation from a few weeks ago and the Harkin-Enzi bill.

Among the agreements are moving decisions about whether schools are succeeding or failing out of Washington. Another is to encourage teacher and principal evaluation without mandating, defining and regulating it from Washington, D.C.  Another good provision is to encourage but not define, regulate, or mandate the use of measures of growth of student achievement, to understand not just if our students are achieving the grade level goal but whether they are making rapid progress toward that goal.

There are many provisions in the Harkin-Enzi bill that have been suggested by both Republicans and Democrats. But there are a number of provisions included that are not in the legislation we introduced a few weeks ago that I don't support, and I'm going to seek to amend them. I've indicated to the senators that I intend to offer seven amendments, which in my view would take out of the legislation provisions that tend to create a national school board.

One is the so-called achievement gap. Another is the so-called ‘highly qualified teacher’ provision. These are all provisions that substitute the judgment of people in Washington for that of mayors, local school beards, governors, and legislators. So I don't think we need a national school board and neither do most Americans.

Some will say, well then why would you support a bill that you don't entirely agree with?

The reason is that we have a process here in Congress. This isn't like the health care bill a few years ago when we had 40 Republican Senators and Speaker Pelosi was in charge of the House of Representatives. We have 47 Republican Senators. We have a Republican House of Representatives. And we need to get started fixing this problem.

We need to do something a little different around here. We need to, instead of just beating our chests, we need to find a way to put our heads together, head toward a reasonable result, come up with a solution, and offer it to the President and to the American people. There is no reason in the world why we can't send to the President, by Christmas, legislation fixing No Child Left Behind and we should do it because if we don't, Congress’ inaction will mean that we will transform the United States Education Secretary into a waiver-granting czar for 80,000 schools in this country who according to this law will be identified as failing. Well, if we were to have an education czar or if we were to have the chairman of a national education school board, Secretary Arne Duncan would be a good one. But I don't think we want one in the United States of America.

So I think we should act before Christmas in order to avoid creating a waiver-granting education czar and we should act before Christmas in a way that does not create a national school board.

Mr. President, there's one other suggestion I would make to the authors of this bill. In our earlier meetings with the President, Congressman George Miller of California, who was a key leader in developing No Child Left Behind, said that a bill to fix No Child Left Behind ought to be a lean bill. I agree with Congressman Miller.

The legislation that we Republicans introduced a few weeks ago totaled 221 pages in its five bills. The comparable sections of the Harkin-Enzi draft are 517 pages.  I would urge that we follow Congressman Miller's advice in the final result and be much more succinct than that.

So, Mr. President, despite these concerns, I will vote on Wednesday or Thursday -- whenever we finish -- in favor of bringing this base bill out of the HELP Committee and onto the Senate floor where we can have full amendments.

I'm going to do my best to improve it in committee and on the Senate floor to make it more like the legislation we introduced a month ago. I am going to continue to do that in the conference that we have with the House of Representatives.

I think it's time that we recognize that the American people expect us to step up to major issues, put our best ideas together, and come up with a result. We're part-way there. This is a good place to start.  I thank Senator Harkin and Senator Enzi for the work they've done as well as Representative Kline and Representative Miller, and I thank the President and Secretary Duncan for their attitude. I look forward to working with them to come to a conclusion.

One last thing: we talk a lot about jobs around here. Every American knows that better schools mean better jobs. And we all know that schools are a lot like jobs. We can't create them from Washington, but we can create an environment in which people in their own communities and families and states can create better schools and better jobs.

This is a good place to start. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to include in the record a letter of support which also outlines my objections to the legislation that was introduced today and a copy of an article from the Daily Times today which reminds us of how difficult it is to evaluate teachers fairly and how wise we would be if we satisfied ourselves with creating an environment in which that could happen but did not mandate it, define it, and regulate it from Washington, D.C. I thank the president and yield the floor.