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Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Architect Q&A: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

By Alyson Klein — June 13, 2016 11 min read
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The Every Student Succeeds Act turned six-months-old last Friday. Earlier this spring, Politics K-12’s Alyson Klein sat down with all four of the law’s main architects in Congress. You can check out our interviews with Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee.

Last week, we spoke with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, about his role in getting ESSA over the finish line and the future of the law, as well as how education is playing out in the 2016 presidential contest. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.

Alexander kicked off the interview—before being asked any questions—marveling that the law had actually passed. “Chris Coons [a Democratic Senator from Delaware] called me after it passed,—I wouldn’t have given you 5 to 1 [odds] that it would have passed. I was talking to [then-U.S. Secretary of Education]Arne Duncan the next day and he said 10 to 1.”

That led right into the first question. Alexander and others had been trying for years to get the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which ESSA is the latest version, reauthorized.

Why did it finally work this time?

Alexander had a couple of thoughts. “By the time we got to 2015, almost everybody except the U.S. Department of Education wanted it fixed. Governors, teachers’ unions, chief state school officers ... it was a law that everybody wanted fixed.”

His relationship with Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the education committee, also mattered. “Patty and I worked well together, and I took her advice on how to try to get a bipartisan bill on a very complex issue, which is something that had eluded us for the last two Congresses.”

The process didn’t begin on a bipartisan note, he added. “I started out, as you know, the way I thought a chairman should. There are different ways to do something bipartisan. Typically a chairman would offer a proposal and ... then it would be amended by the minority and by the majority and reported to the floor, knowing that it has to get 60 votes to get to the floor. So that was the way I started out, that would be the normal way to do a bipartisan proposal.”

But Murray sent out a press statement, he said, protesting what she saw as a partisan process. “So I went to see her and she said, ‘I really do want a result.’ And I said, well, then how do you propose we get one, and she suggested that she and I try to write a draft together and present it the committee. And I said, OK, you’re a result-oriented senator, and so am I, so let’s try that and see what works. So I listened to her and took her advice, so I give that some credit” for the eventual deal.

Did you reach out originally to some other Democratic senators before agreeing to work with Murray?

“I talked to a lot of senators about what should go into the bill, including Democrats. We have an informal group of former governors who meet, so I talked to all of them about this and said we’ve got to end this national school board that’s developed. And they all agreed with that. And I asked for them to be interested in it and support them if they go through the process. ... We consulted a lot” with other senators.

In fact, once the bill was ready to go to the floor, “We talked to every single Senate office. And that is unusual, and it paid great dividends.”

Your first move was to put the question of whether to continue annual testing out on the table as a question you wanted to consider. And that really scared a lot of folks in the civil rights community, and it had the effect of distracting from the debate over the federal role and over accountability. So was that a negotiating technique, or were you seriously considering getting rid of the tests?

“It was both. I was seriously considering it because we heard more about overtesting than any other issue. The natural instinct was to blame the 17 federally required tests for that overtesting. So I thought that was option we should consider—in fact I thought it would be irresponsible if we didn’t consider it. But it also had the effect of shocking people and creating a place for [Democrats] to have a win in the end when we kept it. And so the consensus we developed ended up being keep the tests, but move what to do about the results of the tests out of the U.S. Department of Education and back to the states.”

When the House postponed the vote on its version of the bill back in February, many thought reauthorization wasn’t going to happen. What was your take?

“I wasn’t spooked by that. I was determined to pass the bill. I got a lot advice that we should do higher education first because it would be easier to do. Arne Duncan suggested that to me. Others suggested that to me, but I thought it was inexcusable for us to not fix No Child Left Behind, so I never doubted we could do it, even though most everybody else did.”

Were you worried that the opposition of Heritage Action Fund and Club for Growth, which derailed the bill on the House side, would also trip it up in the Senate?

“Well, you always worry, and particularly with an education bill. I said there were crocodiles lurking every corner of the pond. On the one hand, you’ve got vouchers, on the other hand you’ve got a national rule on bullying. ... It’s very difficult to do.”

A lot of the success, he said, came from consultation and trust. For instance, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wanted to introduce a bullying amendment, and Alexander wanted a voucher amendment, both of which might have made the bill’s political path to the floor of the Senate difficult. So both lawmakers agreed to hold off on those provisions until they could get a full floor vote. “Both of them might have passed the committee; if either of them had passed the committee, the bill would have never gotten to the floor,” Alexander said.

I heard there was a handshake deal between you and President Barack Obama early on that the final law would include a requirement that states turn around the bottom 5 percent of their schools. And I heard you knew along that you would have to include some sort of subgroup accountability. Why did you wait for conference to add these things in?

“That was true. I started with the idea that if you want a result, it would have to have the president’s signature. And what we were really doing was limiting the president’s executive authority. So that was, that’s a substantial challenge. I went with him in January to Tennessee where he announced his community college program and talked to him along the way about what we were working on. ... I said, ‘I have on request on [ESEA reauthorization],’ because he had already threatened to veto the House bill. I said, ‘I want to ask you to work with us, but don’t threaten to veto the bill.’ He said, ‘I won’t.’”

Later on in the process, Alexander and Murray visited the president, Alexander said. It was just the three of them, and a few aides. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wasn’t there, he said.

The president had three asks for the developing ESEA overhaul: Annual testing, an early-childhood education program, and a focus on turning around the lowest 5 percent of schools, Alexander recalled.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, in order to get a result, we have to present you with a bill that you are comfortable signing. We’ll keep the testing,’” Alexander said. He also told Obama he was working with Murray and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., to get to “yes” on early childhood.

And he told the president that Congress would do “something on the 5 percent,” but that it wouldn’t happen until conference.

“‘I won’t bring you a bill [in whicha requirement on the bottom 5 percent] is not there,’” he said he told Obama. “That was the understanding that we had, and that’s what we did. And when we got to the signing ceremony in December, we were talking beforehand, he said, ‘You kept your word and did what you said you would do,’ and I said, ‘So did you, and that’s not a bad way to work. He, himself, was very professional and good to work with throughout the entire process.”

Could you say the same about the Education Department? Were they good to work with, too?

“The department simply wasn’t very involved. I mean, Arne had been very involved in the first two Congresses. I have a cordial relationship with him. ... The discussions we had were with Sen. Murray and her staff. By the time we got to conference the White House and the department were involved.”

And he said that, to Obama’s credit, the president didn’t add to his list of asks, “The president didn’t come along after what he said in March and say, ‘I just thought of three more things.’ ... He was true to his word.”

[Politics K-12 note: It seems Democratic congressional aides were in regular communication with Duncan’s team when the law was being written. Department officials generally kept Democrats informed of their priorities and provided technical assistance to Democratic congressional staff when they asked for it. But Democrats on Capitol Hill, and eventually the White House, did the bulk of the negotiating with Republicans, including Alexander and his aides.]

How do you square the law’s crackdown on secretarial authority with its accountability focus?

“I didn’t trust the department to follow the law. ... Since the consensus for this bill was pretty simple—we’ll keep the tests, but we’ll give states flexibility on the accountability system—I wanted several very specific provisions in there that [limited secretarial authority]. That shouldn’t be necessary, and it’s an extraordinary thing to do. But for example, on Common Core, probably a half a dozen times, [ESSA says] .. you can not make a state adopt the Common Core standards. And I’m sure that if we hadn’t put that in there, they’d try to do it.”

Alexander said that when he was education secretary during President George H.W. Bush’s administration Congress created the direct lending program, allowing students to take out college loans straight from the U.S. Treasury. Alexander didn’t like that program, but he implemented it anyway.

“Contrast that with the attitude of this secretary and this department,” Alexander said. Exhibit A: supplement-not-supplant. “That’s total and complete disrespect for the Congress, and if I was a governor I would follow the law, not the regulation.”

Do you think that there’s anything you possibly could have done in crafting this bill to prevent current controversy over supplement-not-supplant?

“I guess we could abolish the Department of Education. ... I’m convinced that the law is the most significant devolution of power to the states in a quarter century, certainly on education.”

What’s your take on the accountability regulations?

Alexander declined to talk about the Education Department’s proposal, released late last month. “At the request of the White House I’m holding my powder on this until I have a chance to read and digest it.”

But it’s clear he’s pretty fired up about the supplement-not-supplant regulation, which deals with how federal dollars interact with state and local education spending. Congress, he said, produced a bill that could give school districts certainty on education for years. “Now the department is trying to rewrite what the Congress did and throw the whole issue into political wrangling,” he said. “They have no authority to do that.”

The change to the way teacher’s salaries are calculated that the department is pursuing through its proposed supplement not supplant regulation was already floated in a bill by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., which failed to gain support, Alexander noted.

“Under this department’s theory of regulatory authority, you can apparently do anything,” Alexander said. “Governors across the country will fight and resist, and I think it’s a shame because we had ended a period of uncertainty, there were hosannas issuing forth from classrooms everywhere, and this one little department is about to upset that.”

Alexander added that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the Speaker of the House, played a key role in getting the bill through Congress.

Shortly after becoming speaker, Ryan went to a Senate GOP lunch, Alexander recalled. And he told lawmakers, “We are looking for important pieces of legislation that have bipartisan support, that have been through the committee, that have been through the floor, that the president will sign. And it just so happens he sat down next to me, and I said, ‘I’ve got a bill for you that exactly fits that description. ... I called [Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee] and John said, ‘Well I’ve got a meeting with Paul later today.’ And from that we were able to get the bill through the House in a very short period of time. And I think it was fortuitous that Chairman Kline chaired the conference committee. We’d worked it out in the Senate and we’d worked it out with the president. And having Congressman Kline chair the conference committee symbolically was very important to getting a result.”

What kind of education president, overall, do you think Donald Trump would be? Do you have a sense?

“I have no idea. I have not heard him say. We’ll have to wait and see.”

What about Hillary Clinton?

“Well, I have worked with her before. Bill Clinton was elected governor the same day I was, in 1978. We had a lot of common goals, then. And we have some here. For instance, we both worked on year-round Pell Grants.” But Alexander said he thought Bill Clinton’s presidential administration was given to federal overreach on K-12, and he worries Hillary Clinton’s would follow a similar pattern.

“I would hope both of them, both Clinton and Trump, would recognize that Congress worked very hard to move away from the national school board [under ESSA]. But I don’t know enough about Trump to know what he thinks about that, and I worry about the” possibility of overreach with Clinton.

Related Links:

Lamar Alexander, Fifth U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements

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