Lamar Alexander Poised to Take Reins of Education in the Senate

Lamar Alexander Poised to Take Reins of Education in the Senate

With Republicans having won control of the Senate, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) appears poised to take charge of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

As Lauren Camera of Education Week writes, Alexander, the former U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, has a history of collaboration and compromise, and will likely be doing both with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who is expected to take retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) top slot for the Democrats on the HELP Committee.

When Alyson Klein, also writing at Education Week, interviewed Alexander recently, he said that, should Republicans take charge in the Senate, he would make the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)–which is the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–“a top priority.”

According to Klein, Alexander will likely reintroduce legislation he initiated last year to renew NCLB, which was supported by every GOP member of HELP, but not a single Democrat member.

She continues:

The measure would significantly scale back the federal role in K-12 policy, allowing states to devise their own accountability plans and eliminate the federal role in requiring states to set specific student-achievement goals, or in identifying a certain percentage of schools as low-performing.

As under No Child Left Behind, schools would be required to test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and report the results, including for subgroups of students, such as English-language learners and those in special education. Transparency would become the main lever for school improvement.

What this means is that President Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RttT) program, which funds the Common Core test consortia and competitive grants that have manipulated states into signing on to the “college and career ready” standards, could come to a grinding halt.

Ironically, Rick Hess and Mike McShane, who have both been supporters of the Common Core standards, write at U.S. News & World Report that Alexander’s plan to scale back the role of the U.S. Education Department could actually be a plus for the highly controversial Common Core standards:

A surprising beneficiary of Alexander’s efforts might be the Common Core. A major concern for conservative critics has been the Obama administration’s efforts to use federal authority to encourage states to adopt the Common Core. Should Alexander and his House counterparts succeed at clearly reining in the Obama administration, it might help Common Core advocates allay conservative concerns.

Indeed, Alexander has given voters mixed messages when it comes to his views on federal overreach into education. In March, the Senator appeared with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), a major supporter of the nationalized standards, and Gov. Bill Haslam (R-TN) at an education roundtable discussion sponsored by pro-Common Core Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Tennessee Business Roundtable.

Then, throughout Alexander’s primary challenge by state Rep. Joe Carr (R)–a staunch Common Core opponent–the media tried to hone in on Alexander’s views of the education initiative, but were met with his response: “Let’s don’t talk about Common Core.”

Meanwhile, during both his primary race and his general election campaign when he doubled up Democrat Gordon Ball, Alexander also blasted the idea of what he calls a “national school board.” In essence, he was critical of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s aggressive coercion of states through waivers from NCLB requirements.

Now the Senator, who has collaborated in the past with both Democrats and the nation’s largest teachers’ union–the National Education Association–is betting that Democrats will work with him to reauthorize ESEA, especially since they are also likely experiencing pressure from constituents who don’t like the current amount of federal control over education.

The other education issue that Alexander’s HELP committee could address is school choice, which many Republicans view as a “conservative” issue.

As Klein indicates, Alexander’s school choice plan would “allow states to take almost all of their federal K-12 funds and combine them into one giant block grant aimed at creating scholarships for low-income students that could be used at any school, private or public.”

However, with the priority of reauthorizing ESEA and the likelihood of getting Democrat support for that measure, Alexander may not add provisions to that legislation, whether for school choice or charter school funding, unless he can be assured they will not draw support away from the ESEA reauthorization.

Alexander’s counterpart in the House will continue to be Rep. John Kline (R-MN), who heads the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Kline, who has pulled measures to rewrite NCLB through the House, will now have some welcome assistance from Alexander in the Senate.


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