Weekly Column by Sen. Lamar Alexander: Freeing Tennessee from Federal Education Mandates

Posted on June 14, 2013

Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education has become so congested with federal mandates that it has become, in effect, a national school board. This past week I proposed with my Senate Republican colleagues a plan that would restore responsibility for education to states, and give more freedom to parents and teachers.

The congestion of mandates we’re trying to undo is caused by three things: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Obama administration’s use of waivers. If you remember the childhood game “Mother, May I?,” then you’ll have a pretty good sense of how the process works – Tennessee and other states must come to Washington to get approval for their plans.

No Child Left Behind imposed federal standards for what children had to know in reading and math, and for whether schools and teachers were succeeding or failing. Race to the Top is a competitive grant program, but the U.S. secretary of education has used it to essentially mandate things like Common Core curriculum and four “turnaround models” for failing schools.

Congress’s failure to fix the problems with No Child Left Behind and restrain Race to the Top has allowed the Obama administration to turn its waiver authority – which is supposed to free up states – into a way to tell states what to do. Senate Democrats have offered a 1,150-page plan that would not only maintain these mandates, but expand them, by creating more than 25 new programs and 150 new reporting requirements for states and local school districts. 

In just 220 pages, our Republican plan would help children in public schools learn what they need to know by getting decision making out of Washington. We call it “Every Child Ready for College or Career.” Though Democrats with the majority on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – of which I am the lead Republican – voted to move forward with their plan, we will continue to push our proposal.

Our plan emphasizes state and local decision-making. It takes Washington out of the business of deciding whether local schools are succeeding or failing, rejects federal mandates that effectively create a national school board and prohibits the secretary of education from prescribing standards. It also makes it easier for states to offer low-income parents more choice in finding the right public school for their children

In short, it places responsibility for helping our children learn squarely where it ought to be – on states and communities.