Weekly Column by Lamar Alexander: "Fixing No Child Left Behind"

Posted on January 20, 2015

Last week, I was elected by my Republican colleagues to be the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. This is one of the Senate’s most active committees, and the work of no other Senate committee affects the daily lives of Tennesseans more than this one.

It is a great privilege to be chairman of this committee, and I am ready to help our new Republican majority tackle many of our country’s most important challenges, which include repairing the damage of Obamacare, reauthorizing and deregulating the Higher Education Act, and reforming the Food and Drug Administration. 

But my first priority as chairman is to fix No Child Left Behind. The law was passed in 2001–a year before I became a senator–and it expired more than seven years ago. Since then, it has become unworkable–if its provisions were applied today, nearly every one of our nation’s 100,000 public schools would be labeled as a “failing” school.

The committee will hold its first hearing of this Congress on Wednesday, January 21, to look at the question of whether our nation’s 50 million public school students are taking too many tests.

It will be the first of several hearings we will hold before we wrap up this committee’s six years of work to fix No Child Left Behind. We have held 24 hearings already and have reported a bill twice to the floor. Twenty of the 22 members of the committee were members in 2013 when we last reported a bill. 

My hope is that we will have a bill passed into law in the early months of this year.

Last week, I released a chairman’s staff discussion draft bill to all the committee members and the public as a place to start discussions and get feedback from my Senate colleagues. 

I propose we set realistic goals, keep the best portions of No Child Left Behind, and restore to states and communities the responsibility to decide whether students and teachers are succeeding or failing. We need to reverse the Obama administration’s trend toward a national school board and put responsibilities for education back with states and local communities.

Because Congress has failed to fix the law, today, 42 states—including Tennessee—as well as the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, are operating under waivers from the unworkable provisions of No Child Left Behind.

In exchange for the waivers, Secretary Duncan 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. States should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to adopt Common Core or any other standards, without any involvement from Washington, and they should be free to make these other decisions too.  

States are struggling, and we need to act. We will move forward with a bipartisan process that will keep the best portions of the law, while restoring responsibility to states and local communities and ensuring that all 50 million students in our nation’s 100,000 public schools can succeed.