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Bipartisan Pair of Senators to Tackle Education Red Tape

By Alyson Klein — March 17, 2011 3 min read
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Two lawmakers with a lot of experience and expertise on K-12 issues—U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.—have teamed up to introduce a bill that seeks to make better sense of the maze of federal and state K-12 regulations and the intersection between the two.

State and federal regulations often crisscross in strange and nonsensical ways, the senators said on a conference call with reporters today. For districts and schools, that might mean spending time on testing and compliance, not on teaching and learning, they said.

What’s worse: Schools might be afraid to try new strategies that could improve student outcomes because they aren’t sure if they’re allowed to spend federal dollars on them. For instance, Bennet said, it can be very difficult for districts to spend Title I money on Response to Intervention.

“There’s no reason for that,” he said. “That makes it harder to deliver results for kids.”

So what are they going to do about it?

Well, the two lawmakers have introduced a bill that could become part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It would call for the U.S. Department of Education to start a national task force that would look at federal, state, and local regulations, as well as testing and assessment systems.

The groups’ mandate would be to examine which regulations and assessments schools have to comply with, and to separate meaningless, bureaucratic red-tape from the stuff that actually has an impact on student learning. You can read more about it here.

And the senators are going to get started on this kind of work in their own home states: Tennessee, which won Race to the Top, and Colorado, which lots of folks argue should have won Race to the Top. Their respective governors—Gov. Bill Haslam, R-Tenn., and Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo.—are also on board. And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is also supportive.

Typically, when the feds look at regulations, they seek to put in additional requirements, Alexander said. This time, “instead of adding, we’re subtracting,” he said.

That’s the policy behind the bill. But there’s also a political reason why this legislation matters: Alexander and Bennet are working together on a K-12 issue.

Both lawmakers have lots of experience on education that predates their Senate careers. Bennet was the Denver schools superintendent; Alexander was Education Secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

And both have good relationships with Duncan. Alexander called him Obama’s best cabinet pick; Bennet is the administration’s Senate soulmate when it comes to K-12 policy (and the rumored runner-up for Duncan’s job).

They also share an interest in using student outcome data to help drive policy decisions and in allowing states, districts, and schools greater flexibility on strategies to boost student achievement.

“We agree on more than we disagree on,” Bennet said.

So if there’s going to be a bipartisan ESEA this year (or ever, really) these two lawmakers seem likely to play a key role in helping bring the two parties together, at least on the Senate side. Collaborating on this legislation is a way for them to continue to develop their working relationship.

On that front ... Alexander also tipped his hand on some of the areas of “developing consensus” in the reauthorization discussion. Lawmakers want to “set a more realistic goal” for student achievement, and ensure that Washington is “less involved in announcing which schools” in Colorado, Tennessee, and elsewhere are “failing and succeeding.” And he said that lawmakers want to see a continuation of the breaking out student data into subgroups (right now, that includes racial minorities and English-language learners).

That’s “one legacy of NCLB that has broad support,” Alexander said.

And interestingly, Alexander said that lawmakers, including Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, also want a “lean” bill.

So what exactly would that mean, in Miller’s mind?

Rep. “Miller does in fact support a ‘thin bill'—the pillars of which would be college and career ready standards, strong accountability and improved use of data,” Melissa Salmanowitz, his spokeswoman, told me in an email “He supports consolidation of programs with focused outcome requirements. He believes a performance based system and strong use of data would allow the federal government to get out of the way and give states and districts the flexibility to craft programs tailored to meet the needs of their students and their communities.”