Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state is the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee and is poised to take over as the committee’s chairwoman if the Democrats take control of the Senate after special elections in Georgia next month. A former preschool teacher, she’s also a primary author of the Every Student Succeeds Act and a member of Senate Democratic leadership. We spoke with her on Dec. 10, five years after President Barack Obama signed ESSA, to ask her about the law, standardized testing, and the next secretary of education. The following Q&A with Murray has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve said recently the Education Department should provide some flexibility from the Every Student Succeeds Act, but that states should still give summative assessments this school year. What’s the middle ground you had in mind for ESSA, and why would directing more resources and support to vulnerable students without knowing those test scores be problematic for you?
Look, it is a very challenging time with COVID affecting our schools, and all the inequities being developed, or we believe are being developed, because of so many low-income students and students of color who don’t have the capacity to learn at home falling further and further behind. We will not know that unless we do some kind of assessments so that we know how to direct our resources to where they need to be.
As a parent and as a grandparent, I know nobody wants to get a call that their child isn’t ready for the next grade. They don’t want to get a call that their child’s school has been letting them down for years. As a parent and grandparent, you want your child’s teachers and schools to have the right resources. You want them to be prepared for the next step. But if we know that resources are not getting to our schools and educators who need them most, and inequities in our education system have left too many kids behind-with this pandemic making it worse-then we can’t put our public education dollars, without an assessment of what we need, in the right place.
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. That’s called education equity.
In your view, what are the things that need to be included or kept out of any COVID-19 relief deal when it comes to K-12 education that you guys are working right now?
The needs are so large. We know the challenges of getting our kids back into school with the safety that needs to happen, for the teachers and the students and everyone who works there. We know that some schools are going to have to do online learning, and know some are doing a hybrid. And we don’t know how long this is going to last. So schools are struggling. They need the resources. And that’s our public education system.
So in the COVID package, one of the most important things to do-I understand this is bridge funding until we have a Biden administration and can fight for more-but we have to make sure that the dollars that are in there are not redirected to private schools without the federal protections that we have always had in place to make sure that our federal dollars are treated equitably, and that private schools can’t discriminate against people.
There was a lot of controversy about whether federal COVID relief for schools should be in some way conditioned on whether schools have in-person learning. Is that still a nonstarter for you like it was this summer?
There isn’t a parent in this country who doesn’t want their kid back in school. But it has to be done safely. And if we just say, you only get money if you put them back in school, then those schools that have the toughest time are not going to reopen safely. So we have to be very careful in how we structure that language.
Aside from pandemic relief, what are your major priorities for education legislation heading into the next Congress and a new administration?
Well [coronavirus relief] is obviously going to be a huge part of it. I think one of the things we have to do with the new administration is really do some oversight and really look at ESSA. One of my frustrations has been that: You can write a law, but if it’s implemented incorrectly, then your law doesn’t really mean much. We’ve had a lot of challenges with President Trump and Secretary DeVos along the way in making sure that every single student has equitable access to high-quality education.
I’m looking forward to working with the incoming administration to make sure that our states and our school districts have the necessary guidance to carry out the law and it’s being done the way we wrote it. This pandemic has highlighted a lot of inequities and a lot of problems across our system. We have got to dive in and really double our efforts to [help] those students, whether its students of color, students with disabilities, or English-learners, or homeless students, or kids in foster care … We’ve got to make sure that the inequities that this COVID virus has caused in our school system are really focused on.
Anything beyond ESSA in terms of guidance on civil rights issues or administration action that you’re pressing the Biden team on?
We are obviously talking to them to make sure that in this really challenging time of COVID, where the systemic inequity is becoming larger, that we have to deal with that first and foremost. If I were a 3rd-grade teacher and my students had been out of school for the past year and a half, I would be so worried about coming in that first day of school and having such a divide in that 3rd grade class between the kids who’ve been able to do well out of school, had all the support at home, and all the kids who are just sitting at home, and trying to bring that 3rd grade class together to move them forward. It’s going to be tough. We need to recognize that.
What’s most important to you about who the next secretary of education is, and how important do you think it is that the person has experience working in classrooms or schools?
I’m thrilled that it’s going to be a secretary of education who is not Betsy DeVos. She had no experience in public education. 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. So going forward, having a secretary of education who understands their responsibility is to students first and foremost, and who really prioritizes tackling the systemic inequities our students face is really going to be important.
Have you made any recommendations to the Biden team about who the next secretary of education should or should not be?
No, I’ve stayed away from that.
Do you plan on being chairwoman of the Senate education committee if Democrats take control of the Senate in the next Congress?