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Patty Murray Set to Lead Senate Education Committee After Democratic Wins in Georgia

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 07, 2021 3 min read
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks about the coronavirus during a media availability on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, March 3, 2020 in Washington.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who helped write the Every Student Succeeds Act, is set to become the chairwoman of the Senate education committee following Democrats’ victory in two U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday.

Murray, a former preschool teacher, has served as the ranking Democrat on the committee since 2015. She will replace Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who retired at the end of the last Congress and worked with Murray on writing ESSA as the committee chair.

As the leader of the committee, Murray will have oversight over a variety of education issues, although her top priority will be addressing policy issues related to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on schools.

In an interview with Education Week last month in which she said she planned on becoming the committee chairwoman if Democrats took control of the Senate, Murray stressed the need for schools to administer assessments to help determine students’ academic needs as a result of school closures and other disruptions.

“I just think we have a moral responsibility to understand how all of our students are doing, where we are falling short, and we have to use data to make sure that we are doing the right thing and sending the dollars to where they are needed the most,” Murray said in that December interview. “That’s called education equity.”

She also said she wants Congress to pass a new COVID-19 relief package that would include more money for K-12 schools once President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., gives an opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss vaccines and protecting public health during the coronavirus pandemic on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Washington.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., gives an opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss vaccines and protecting public health during the coronavirus pandemic on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Washington.
Greg Nash/Pool via AP

Murray is an advocate for robust assessment and accountability measures for schools, and has said this approach is necessary to ensure that disadvantaged students and struggling schools get additional support and resources.

“We put in guardrails to make sure that students didn’t fall through the cracks,” Murray said in a 2019 interview four years after ESSA became law. “We didn’t want to be five or 10 years out from passing that bill and be back in the same place as before we passed the No Child Left Behind bill.”

She is also an advocate for early-childhood education, and helped create federal Preschool Development Grants when President Barack Obama signed ESSA into law in 2015.

One of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ primary antagonists on Capitol Hill during the Trump administration, Murray is a vocal opponent of using federal dollars to support private school choice. She’s also criticized DeVos’ approach to federal spending on education and the Title IX regulations adopted by the U.S. Department of Education last year.

“We’ve seen her repeatedly turn her back on students and educators and families because she was focused on privatizing our education system, which would drain the resources from our public schools even in a pandemic,” Murray said of DeVos.

Although Murray often enjoyed a productive working relationship with Alexander, with ESSA being the most prominent example in K-12 education policy, the relationship between the two senators frayed during the Trump administration.

Murray will be the second woman to lead the Senate committee that oversees education policy. Former Kansas senator Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican, led the committee from 1995 to 1997, when it went by a different name; its full name now is the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Murray was first elected to the Senate in 1992. She has also been a member of Democratic leadership in the Senate. Assuming Murray continues to serve on the powerful Senate appropriations committee that determines funding for the Education Department among other federal agencies, she will also exert more influence over K-12 spending as well as policy in the new Congress.

With the victories by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the Georgia Senate runoff races Tuesday, Senate control would be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, but Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would act as a tie-breaking vote and effectively give Democrats control of the chamber once she and Biden take office. (Like many other news outlets, Education Week relies on the Associated Press to call election results.)

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