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Sen. Lamar Alexander at the RNC: On Trump, Clinton, and ESSA

By Alyson Klein — July 18, 2016 5 min read
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We caught up here with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, who is attending the Republican National Convention.

Alexander—who supported Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the GOP primary—chatted about presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump; Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, and, of course, the Every Student Succeeds Act, of which he was a key architect.

The highpoints? Alexander thinks a President Trump would favor local control of schools and have a light regulatory touch. And, while it’s no secret that the education committee chairman thinks the Obama administration is going too far in regulating on ESSA, he is “hopeful” that a Clinton Education Department wouldn’t follow suit, in part because some of her supporters (namely, teachers’ unions) don’t want her too.

Here’s a recap of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity:

Alexander and Politics K-12 have talked before about Donald Trump and education policy. And Alexander’s said he wasn’t really sure where Trump’s heart was on the issue. Does Alexander have a better sense now?

In a word, yes, he said he does. Alexander told me he had spoken with Trump about the issue, including when he met with GOP senators a few weeks ago.

Alexander told the presumptive GOP nominee that, “my hope is that if you’re elected you will enforce the new education law the way we wrote it, which is to transfer responsibility for accountability out of Washington back to the states. And [Trump] agreed with that. He said he was very much for local control. So I’m convinced he will.”

What’s more, Alexander said Trump “understands the explosion of regulations across the board in Washington, D.C., is a massive issue, bigger he said than taxes. And I agree with him on that. The jungle of red tape that smothers a lot of college administrators, that makes it harder to fill out a student aid form, that makes it difficult to repay your student loan, all of that is a deregulation, de-centralization of authority that I think he would instinctively favor, so I’m encouraged by that.”

What about Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee? Alexander has talked about how he’s been concerned that the Obama administration has overreached on ESSA regulation. Does he have a similar worry about Clinton, should she become president?

“I hope that Hillary Clinton, if she were to be president would remember her days in Arkansas and how they, and we—I was governor at the same time—we didn’t think people in Washington were any smarter than we were in trying to figure out how to care for and educate our children, so I would hope that she would also understand the need to transfer or restore back to parents and classroom teachers, to the states, responsibility for education. Some of her biggest supporters understand that. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association don’t like all this Washington control any better than I do. So her background and some of her supporters would make me hope that she would implement the new law in the way we wrote it, which means to restore states’ classroom teachers’ responsibility for what to do about our children.”

What does Alexander think of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana as Trump’s running mate? Pence has a background in school choice, and he’s anti-common core.

“I like Gov. Pence. I think it’s an excellent choice. He’s a known quantity. I worked with him in Congress. I found him a conservative Republican, but a very reasonable person, interested in policy. And I’m glad that he’s had a chance to be governor because governors have a very different job than members of Congress, they have to solve problems, they have to be practical. ... What he did on school choice, on universities ... I thought represented a very practical point of view for a conservative leader. So I like him, I’m glad he’s there. I think he adds a lot to the ticket.”

Who would Alexander like to see as Trump’s education secretary?

“Someone who cares about children and will implement the new education law the way we wrote it, instead of trying to recreate the national school board that we tried to undo. You could pick any one of a number of people. There are a lot of good Republican governors out there who have a background in education who would be well-suited to take this new law over the next several years and lead the states, not mandate the states, to work on higher standards, better teaching and real accountability.

“All of the good ideas are in the states and in the school districts, not in Washington, and we need a new education secretary who understands that. ... Unfortunately the current Education Department seems not to understand it.”

Could he name a name? Give any suggestions?

He demurred, although he did mention he thinks there are also some good GOP state chiefs who could head up the Education Department. (No names on that either, sorry.)

Should Clinton get elected, she’s talked a lot about “free college"—of making public universities, or making public college free to many low- and moderate-income families. The Higher Education Act is the next big federal education bill to come up. Does Alexander think he could work with Clinton on something like that?

“If I’m the chairman or the ranking member of the education committee, my job is to work with the president. But [free college is] that’s the wrong approach. I think she’s just trying to catch up with Bernie Sanders and get his voters in a general election.”

A better way to go, according to Alexander, would be Tennessee’s plan, which offers two years of free community college to every high school graduate, combined with mentoring, counseling, and a requirement for community service.

“I don’t see any way the federal government can afford the Sanders-Clinton philosophy that everything is free from Washington, nor do I think it’s the best approach.”

Why does he think education has gotten so little attention in this presidential campaign, compared to past years?

“Elections are about peace and prosperity. ... The solution to the prosperity problem, every governor knows, has a lot to do with education. ... Everyone talks about one thing: How do I get more trained workers” for the jobs that need to be filled.

Photo: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

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