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Lamar Alexander, Impeachment, and the Politics of ESSA

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 31, 2020 5 min read
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Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., seized control of the news cycle this week for reasons very different from the Every Student Succeeds Act, simplifying how students apply for federal higher education loans, and similar issues he’s known for in Washington. But if you look closely, you might see a parallel between his handling of the impeachment inquiry and his recent approach to education policy.

The chairman of the Senate education committee revealed Thursday evening that although he agrees that President Donald Trump acted inappropriately with respect to his actions involving Ukraine, investigations involving former Vice President Joe Biden, and military aid, he does not favor calling witnesses to testify in the Senate about the matter. He said that rather than removing Trump for something that he does not believe meets the standard for such a move, the Senate should leave the matters to voters in the 2020 election.

“Our founding documents provide for duly elected presidents who serve with ‘the consent of the governed,’ not at the pleasure of the United States Congress,” Alexander’s statement concludes. “Let the people decide.”

So what’s the connection to ESSA? One of the key issues Alexander had to consider as a key architect of ESSA was how to balance competing views about the standardized exams mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

Some conservatives thought such tests would be crucial for holding schools accountable for the federal aid money they received. And some liberals believed they forced schools to address inequities as well as low-performing students (many of them students of color) who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

But others had truly soured on the tests. A sweeping federal education mandate didn’t necessarily sit totally comfortably in certain conservative circles. And to others in the education community, such tests were flawed and were used to unfairly punish teachers and schools who in their view needed more support and resources instead.

What to do? Alexander ultimately put his weight behind keeping the tests in the new law, but otherwise restricting the federal government’s powers over to mandate or or incentivize how the tests could be used. It was a way to strike back against some of the Obama administration’s moves, but it also represented what he said was middle ground. Here’s part of a 2016 Senate speech from Alexander about ESSA that illustrates his approach to this issue pretty clearly:

“People who don’t usually agree in the education world said we want to keep the tests. We want to keep the 17 federally required state-designed tests between grades three and 12 so we can know how our children are doing. And we want to report that to the parents and the students. But we want to move out of Washington and back to the classroom teachers, back to the local school boards, back to the communities, back to the governors, the responsibility for our children and our schools.”

It’s not a stretch to see that just as Alexander tried to walk what he thought was a middle path when it came to federally required tests and ESSA, he acknowledged that the president should not have acted as he did, the impeachment trial should draw to a close and not overlap with the 2020 election any further. In both cases there’s a “let the people decide” philosophy at the foundation of Alexander’s stated opinion, expressed either figuratively or literally.

Whether Alexander’s approach to the impeachment trial represents a real compromise or middle path on his part, of course, depends on your point of view.

Here are two responses from people with disparate opinions about K-12 education, one from Thomas B. Fordham President Michael Petrilli, and another from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

What remains to be seen is what if any impact Alexander’s decision on impeachment witnesses has on any legislative ambitions he retains. Alexander, who is not seeking reelection this year, has harbored ambitions to revamp the Higher Education Act for several years, for example. While he’s had certain success on narrow higher education issues like simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, and ensuring permanent funding for historically black colleges and universities, those changes fall well short of his aims.

On the one hand, voting to hear from witnesses probably wouldn’t have endeared him and any signature bills he might propose to other GOP senators in the majority, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in particular.

On the other hand, by moving to bring the impeachment trial to a swift conclusion, Alexander likely didn’t make any hypothetical negotiations with House Democrats, who are in the majority, any easier. Would such Democrats want to make big news for cutting a sweeping deal with Alexander later this year concerning higher education, which promises to be a major issue for 2020 Democrats seeking the presidency? Could Alexander still negotiate compromises on smaller issues affecting things like college affordability and oversight before he retires?

We reached out to Alexander’s office multiple times to inquire what if any impact the senator thinks his decision about witnesses might have on his approach to the Higher Education Act and other education policy matters. We’ll update this piece if we get a comment from him.

Photo: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate education committee (J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File)

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