Speeches & Floor Statements

Opening Statement: Alexander: Tennessee, Louisiana, New Mexico Are Making the Most of New Education Law by Designing Innovative Plans

Posted on October 3, 2017

On April 16, 2015 – after 7 years of Congressional effort, 27 hearings, many hours of work, and a three-day markup where we considered 57 amendments – this committee met for a final vote on legislation to fix No Child Left Behind.


That vote started with Senator Murray and it ended with me. And in the end, the clerk read the vote: “I have 22 ayes, zero nays,” he said.
It was a dramatic and emotional moment. The room erupted in applause – even we senators were applauding ourselves.


Equally dramatic, in December of 2015, the Senate passed by a vote 85-12 the Every Student Succeeds Act. When President Obama signed the bill into law, he called it “a Christmas miracle.”


When ESSA passed the Senate, I said, “Today we are unleashing a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement—one that recognizes that the path to higher standards, better teaching and real accountability is classroom by classroom, community by community, and state by state—and not through Washington, D.C.”


The nation’s governors took the extraordinary step of formally endorsing ESSA, saying it, “is poised to transform the federal system – returning responsibility to the states and … dramatically reduces the federal footprint while encouraging and building on state efforts to expand educational opportunities for students who need help the most.”


The Council of Chief State School Officers said, "This is a historic moment…It is a trajectory that will bring stability to states, offering ground firm enough for states to innovate and design systems that specifically meet the needs of their students.”
The purpose of today’s hearing is to see to what extent that has happened.


The Every Student Succeeds Act is a historic piece of legislation because it represented that we can reach a bipartisan consensus on a topic of considerable differences – elementary and secondary education.


That consensus was: Continue the law’s important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states what to do about that progress.


I started out thinking we should get rid of the 17 federally required state-designed tests between grades three and 12 because of my aversion to Washington control. I listened to those in the classrooms and those in the states; I saw that the tests themselves were not the problem, that they were actually helpful. What needed to be changed was who was in charge of doing something about the results of those tests.

So we kept the 17 tests, so we can know how our students are doing, and required those results to be disaggregated and reported to the public. But the law restores back to the classroom teachers, local school boards, communities and states, the responsibility for what to do about the results of those tests.


The Every Student Succeeds Act put states back in the driver’s seat for decisions on how to help their students.


The law is also historic because we very clearly wrote prohibitions on the Secretary into the law. For example, the Secretary is specifically prohibited from telling states how to set academic standards, how to evaluate state tests, how to identify and fix low-performing schools, teacher evaluation systems, and setting state goals for student achievement and graduation rates.


That was true for President Obama’s Education Secretary, is true for Secretary DeVos, and will be true for the next Education Secretary.

***


Here is where we are at today:


Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, in order to receive $15.5 billion in annual federal Title 1 funding, every state must submit their Title I plans to the Department of Education that set goals for their students and show how the states will hold schools accountable for their performance.

16 states submitted their plans by the spring deadline of May 3, and so far 14 of those have been approved by the Department.

32 states submitted plans by the fall deadline of September 18, and will now go through the review and approval process to make sure they meet the requirements of the law.

The two remaining states have been given an extension because of the hurricanes and are finishing developing their plans and will submit them in the near future.


Despite a new law, a new administration, and Congress overturning an Obama-era accountability provision that did exactly what Congress told the department not to do, this has been a smooth process for states.


Under the law, the Department has 120 days to review and approve state plans once they are submitted. So far, Secretary DeVos has met this deadline and provided recommendations on making state plans stronger, and I think the department should be congratulated for this.


***


Today, we will hear from three of the first 14 states whose plans have been approved. Based upon our own review of the plans, these states, Tennessee, Louisiana, and New Mexico, have taken the most advantage of the flexibility we offered under the law in creating innovative plans.
For example, Tennessee’s plan includes a “Ready Graduate Indicator,” which demonstrates students’ readiness for more than just college after high school. If you’re a student who’s planning to join the military or workforce after graduation, this indicator shows the state you’re prepared.
Louisiana has developed a career education initiative and a diverse course program, which means school districts will be able to offer students more career and technical preparation, advanced coursework, and dual enrollment.


After listening to teachers, school districts and parents, New Mexico has included robust student services in their plan. If you’re a parent of a child who needs early education programs or extra math help, this means they’ll be able to access those services.


I look forward to hearing more about the ways your states are taking advantage of the freedom to innovate under the Every Student Succeeds Act.