Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: Fixing No Child Left Behind

Posted on January 13, 2015

I am here today to talk about the work of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. It is an important committee. Senator Ted Kennedy, who served for many years as the chairman of the HELP Committee, as we call it, once said that the HELP Committee had 30 percent of the legislative jurisdiction of the Senate. If you think about it, health, education, labor, and pensions – the work we do touches the lives of virtually every American. 

During the last 2 years, I had the privilege of being the ranking Republican on the committee. The senator from Iowa, Tom Harkin, was the chairman. I think most people would agree we have as ideologically diverse a committee as any committee in the Senate, but we worked very well together. Where we disagreed, which was often, we simply stated our piece and we voted. But we looked for opportunities to agree, and last Congress, we passed 25 bills through the committee that became law. I am not sure any other committee can say that. 

I look forward to a similar productive working relationship with the senator from Washington, Mrs. Murray. She is an experienced legislator, cares deeply about education, health, labor, and pensions, and has proven she knows how to successfully negotiate. We are operating today under a budget agreement that she helped negotiate with Congressman Paul Ryan in the House. I am hopeful Senator Murray and I can work together in the same successful manner that I did with Senator Harkin last Congress.

I have now visited with almost all of the members of the committee, Democrat and Republican, and I feel confident we can successfully work together. 

Here are my goals for the next two years. I have the privilege of being the chairman of the committee. The job of the chairman is to set the committee’s agenda and work with all members of the committee on that agenda. This Congress, all members, before and during hearings, will have a full chance to discuss and amend legislation related to the agenda. When we report a bill to the floor, there will be an opportunity for a robust amendment process, as Senator McConnell has said. Then, I hope we will go to conference with the House of Representatives on our bill, where there will be further discussion. The challenge in passing legislation is there will have to be 60 votes to move a bill out of the Senate, 60 votes to move to conference on the bill, and 60 votes to pass a bill in the end. To accomplish that takes working with all senators, including those on the other side of the aisle. 

I also know if we want a bill to become law, President Obama must sign it. On the major issues we plan to address, we hope to work with him to gain his signature. 

My first priority as chairman will be to fix No Child Left Behind. The law is over seven years expired, and we have been working to reauthorize it for six years. The law has become unworkable. States are struggling. As a result, we need to act. The Secretary of Education gave a fine speech yesterday saying we need to act on No Child Left Behind. I agree with him. I intend to finish this work in the first few months of this year. 

Second, we need to reauthorize the Higher Education Act and deregulate higher education. We need to simplify and streamline the regulations that are imposed on 6,000 colleges and universities. One of the committee members is Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts. When she was at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she said she would like a one?page mortgage application. A multipage mortgage application is not consumer friendly, but a two or three page one provides the consumer with information in a more easily understood manner. I think we could do the same with the application for federal aid, and there is substantial room for bipartisan agreement on this in higher education. 

Just last week, I introduced legislation with Senators Bennet of Colorado, Booker of New Jersey, King of Maine, Isakson of Georgia and Burr of North Carolina, to make it easier for students to go to college by simplifying the complicated, dreaded FASFA. The FASFA is the 108?question application form that 20 million American families fill out every year. The president talked about it on his visit to Tennessee on Friday. He also thinks it is too long and wants to simplify it. I think higher education is an area on which we can work together in the Senate and with the president. 

The third thing I would like to do is to modernize the Food and Drug Administration.  Now, there is a great opportunity, working with the House and with the president, to take a good look at the FDA, to take a good look at the modern world of medical devices and personalized medicines, and to say, “What do we need to do to make it easier to get treatments, medical devices, and cures through the FDA process quickly and effectively while ensuring those treatments, medical devices, and cures are safe so they can help people?” This sort of work literally would affect every single American. 

Fixing No Child Left Behind would affect 50 million schoolchildren, millions of teachers, and 100,000 public schools. Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act and making its regulations simpler would affect 6,000 institutions of all kinds and over 20 million students across this country. If we worked together with the House and the president to reform the FDA, we could affect the lives of every American and people all over the world by the kinds of treatments and devices and cures we bring to market. 

Those are my top 3 priorities.  Of course, we also want to deal with the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare. On this side of the aisle, we would like to repeal it, and I am sure there will be that vote. I also hope, in the words of the senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, we move as rapidly and as responsibly as we can to repair the damage that ObamaCare has done. One example to improve ObamaCare would be to redefine full?time work from 30 hours to 40 hours. That would give about 2.5 million low?wage employees in America a pretty big pay raise when they go from 27 hours or 28 hours to 37 or 38 hours, which is what they would be able to do if full?time work were defined, as it is for everything else, as 40 hours. 

We will have our first hearing on that on a bipartisan bill in the HELP Committee on next Thursday – a week from Thursday. It is a bill introduced by Senators Collins, Murkowski, Donnelly, and Manchin. It is a bipartisan bill. 

Our committee has a great interest in this bill.  The technical jurisdiction is with the Finance Committee.  But by agreement with the Finance Committee, we will have this hearing, and then we will send to the Finance Committee our opinions, and it will be up to the Finance Committee how to report the bill, whether to report it, or what version of it to report.  It helps, at least on the Republican side of the aisle, that six of the members of the Finance Committee are also members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. 

Mr. President, let me talk about the first item on the HELP Committee agenda, the plan to fix No Child Left Behind. 

I see the senator from Washington on the floor today. She will be speaking next, and I look forward to hearing her comments. I said before she came to the floor how much I look forward to working with her. She is an experienced legislator, proven leader, and has a demonstrated record of results. I hope we are able to work together to pass No Child Left Behind. 

No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001 – a year before I became a senator.  It has become unworkable because Congress and the president failed to reauthorize and amend the law when it expired over seven years ago. 

Under the terms of the law, the original provisions continue, but that is what has made it unworkable. Those original provisions, if strictly applied, would label as a failing school almost every one of our 100,000 public schools. This is clearly an unintended result of those who passed No Child Left Behind. 

To avoid that unintended result, the U.S. Secretary of Education has granted waivers from the law's provisions to 42 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. This has created a second unintended consequence. In exchange for the waiver, the secretary has told those states what their academic standards should be, what accountability systems they should use to set performance standards, how many and what tests shall be used to measure the progress of students, how to evaluate teachers, and how to identify and intervene in low?performing schools. The Department of Education has become, in effect, a national school board. 

We have been working over the last six years to fix the problems of No Child Left Behind. Over the last six years, the Senate HELP Committee held two dozen hearings on No Child Left Behind and K?12 education. Twice the committee reported legislation to the Senate floor. In the Congress before last, we reported the Democratic majority’s bill. I did not particularly like it, but Senator Kirk, Senator Enzi, and I all voted for it so we could move it to the floor, continue to work on it, and then replace the law. But it did not come to the floor. In the last session of Congress, the committee reported a bill again. 

This Congress, we need to start with a specific proposal. I will put forward a chairman’s staff discussion draft, consult with all the members of the committee on the proposal, and see if we can ultimately get bipartisan agreement on the proposal.

I have already distributed to all the committee members, Republican and Democrat, copies of the chairman's staff discussion draft.  This is not a chairman's bill; it is not a Republican bill; it is the chairman's staff discussion draft put forward as a place to start discussions.

We would like for staff of the various members of the committee to meet every day for the rest of this week and next week. They can discuss and provide feedback on each section of the bill. This will help determine areas where we agree and disagree. 

Former Chairman George Miller gave some good advice on fixing No Child Left Behind.  He said, “Let's pass a lean bill to fix No Child Left Behind. Discussions have highlighted there are about eight or nine problems with the law. We probably can agree quickly on about four or five of those problems. There are real differences of opinion on the other three or four areas.” I hope we can come to agreement on those issues in the committee, and I am going to do my best to lead that process. I am willing to spend all the time we need over the next several weeks to reach agreement. 

If we cannot reach agreement in committee, then we should vote on a bill, and bring that bill to the floor.  We can amend the bill there, and pass it with 60 votes. Then we can go to conference with the House, and ultimately send a bill to the president for him to sign.

I look forward to the process. A week from tomorrow, we will hold a hearing on testing and accountability. Every member of the committee is interested in this topic. Here are the questions to be examined in the hearing: Are there too many tests?  Who should decide how many and what tests should be administered? We need to answer some questions before we make decisions to be put into a bill. In the chairman’s staff discussion draft I have circulated, I have included two options for discussion: current law testing requirements and another option that gives more flexibility to the states to decide what to do on testing. 

On fixing No Child Left Behind, I plan to set realistic goals, keep the best portions of the law, and restore to states and communities the responsibility to decide whether schools and teachers are succeeding or failing. 

The chairman’s staff discussion draft relies on and respects the 30 years of work by governors and chief state school officers to develop higher standards, better tests, stronger accountability systems, and fair and effective teacher and principal evaluation programs that will allow parents and communities to know how children in our country's public schools are performing. 

I have watched the development of goals, standards, tests, and teacher evaluation systems for a long period of time. I was governor of Tennessee in 1983 when Secretary Terrell Bell in the Reagan administration issued a report called "A Nation at Risk." The report said that if a foreign country had created schools in the condition of our nation’s schools, we would have considered it an act of war. At this time, governors all over the country were working to fix state education systems, understanding that while the federal government has some involvement in elementary and secondary education, it only pays for about 12 percent of state budgets. Most Americans feel as though they should be in charge of their local schools, not Washington. 

In 1985 and 1986, every governor spent an entire year focused on improving schools – the first time in the history of the governors association that it happened.  I was chairman of the National Governors Association that year. The governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, was the vice chairman. 

In 1989, the first President Bush held a national meeting of governors and established national education goals. Then in 1991?1992, President Bush announced America 2000 to help move the nation toward those goals. I was the Education Secretary at that time. States worked together to develop challenging education standards that were voluntary. States discussed teacher evaluation systems that were adopted by states such as Tennessee. In 1984, Tennessee became the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. Washington did not dictate to Tennessee how to pay its teachers based on performance and other states began to model teacher policies in the same way. Governors began to work together on higher standards, on accountability systems, and on teacher evaluation systems. 

President George W. Bush brought many of his education ideas as governor of Texas to Washington. A large portion of those ideas were included in No Child Left Behind, such as the requirement for annual testing to determine student achievement in every school and disaggregated reporting.

President Obama created Race to the Top to give states incentives to adopt certain standards and certain tests and certain teacher evaluation systems. Since much of No Child Left Behind became unworkable in his term, Secretary Duncan provided waivers to certain aspects of the law in exchange for telling states and districts what their academic standards should be, what their accountability system should be, how to evaluate teachers, and how to intervene in low?performing schools. 

These actions have created, in essence, a national school board. We need to reverse the trend toward a national school board and put responsibilities for education back with states and local communities. There is a difference of opinion about the proper balance between the federal and state role in education. I hope we can come to agreement on that balance in the committee. We need to start discussions. We have been working on fixing No Child Left Behind for 6 years, have held multiple hearings, and have reported a bill twice to the floor. Twenty of the 22 members of the committee were members last year when we had hearings and reported a bill. 

I think we need to identify the seven or eight issues to fix in the law, discuss each other's points of view, and see if we can fix No Child Left Behind. I look forward to that process. 

The chairman's staff's discussion draft, already distributed to committee members today, will be on the committee website tonight so that people can see it. We will solicit feedback. Staff will work together over the next few weeks, senators will talk, and we will see we can turn that discussion draft into a bipartisan bill. If we can, we will mark it up in committee, have amendments, and see if we can get a bipartisan result. We will then bring it to the floor for further discussion and debate. If we can't get a bipartisan bill in committee, we will still bring a bill to the floor knowing we will have to get a bipartisan vote to get it off the floor.

I am ready to get started on this process.  I have talked to almost all my colleagues on the committee, and I believe they are as well.

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the record following my remarks a list of the nine problems the chairman's staff discussion draft identifies as the problems we should work on in trying to fix No Child Left Behind. These problems generally come from the discussions we have had over the last six years with the House of Representatives, and with the Secretary of Education. Identifying and discussing these problems should help us move along more rapidly. 

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