Weekly Column by Lamar Alexander: Fixing No Child Left Behind and Ending the Federal Mandate on Common Core

Posted on July 10, 2015

This week the U.S. Senate began debate on a bipartisan agreement to fix No Child Left Behind, an education law that Newsweek magazine calls the “law that everyone wants to fix.” The agreement would end the federal mandate on Common Core and restore responsibility to states, local officials, teachers and parents for 50 million children in 100,000 public schools.

I negotiated this bipartisan legislation, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, with the Senate education committee’s top Democrat Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and we found a broad consensus about the urgent need to fix this law—and remarkable consensus about how to fix it.

And the consensus is this: that we should continue the law’s important measurements of students’ academic progress but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers, and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about the results of these measurements.

This change should produce fewer tests for our students and more appropriate ways to measure their achievement. It is the most effective path to advance higher state academic standards, better teaching, and real accountability.

Many busy Tennessee parents may not know that their children have been going to school for the last seven years under a broken and expired federal education law. However they have no doubt heard about the frustration over Common Core, the academic standards that most states have adopted.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education created a $4.4 billion pot of money that states competed for--called “Race to the Top”—and gave states got additional points for adopting Common Core.

No Child Left Behind expired in 2001 and Congress has not been able to agree on how to fix it, so in 2012 the Obama administration began offering waivers to states from the law’s unworkable requirements. In return, the Education Secretary required states to adopt certain academic standards.

Too much federal control has governors, chief state school officers, and teachers complaining about federal overreach.

Our legislation would end the federal mandate on Common Core, affirm that states may decide for themselves what academic standards they will adopt without interference from Washington, D.C., and send decisions about educating Tennessee’s children back into the hands of Gov. Haslam, the Tennessee legislature, our school districts, teachers and parents. 

Under our proposal, the federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, including Common Core. Tennessee can choose Common Core if it likes, but it can’t be mandated by Washington. States will be free to decide what academic standards to maintain in their states. If they want Common Core, they can have Common Core. If they want half of Common Core, they can have half of it. If states want Un-Common Core, they can have that too.

In addition to ending the federal mandate on Common Core, the legislation would also strengthen state and local control, end the education secretary’s waivers, maintain important information for parents, teachers and communities, end federal test-based accountability, and help states fix the lowest-performing schools, support teachers, expand their best charter schools, and improve the fragmentation of early childhood education programs.

I hope we can finish our business on the Senate floor, negotiate a bill in conference with the U.S. House of Representatives, and send a bill to the president for his signature before the end of the year.

If senators were students in a classroom, none of us would expect to receive a passing grade for unfinished work. Seven years is long enough to consider fixing No Child Left Behind.