U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has been Capitol Hill’s leading Republican on education issues for years, announced Monday that he’s not planning to run again when his current term ends in 2020.
Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, was a chief architect of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015. More recently, he helped write a reauthorization of the federal law for career and technical education that President Donald Trump signed earlier this year. And before ESSA, he also worked on bills dealing with early learning, math and science education, and more.
Alexander, who was first elected to the Senate in 2002, is in his third term. He has one of the lengthiest and most high-profile resumes in public service of anyone in Washington. He served as President George H.W. Bush’s education secretary from 1991 to 1993 and as governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1986, and also was president of the University of Tennessee.
“I have gotten up every day thinking that I could help make our state and country a little better, and gone to bed most nights thinking that I have,” Alexander said in a statement announcing his decision to retire. “I will continue to serve with that same spirit during the remaining two years of my term.”
Alexander has been chairman of the Senate education committee since 2015, and frequently worked with Democrats on legislation, most notably with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking member.
His departure after 2020 could leave a significant void in Congress when it comes to leadership on education issues.
“He’s a legislator at heart,” said Lindsay Fryer, who served as his lead K-12 aide during ESSA’s passage and is now a vice president at Penn Hill Group, a government relations organization in Washington. “He didn’t come to Washington to sit around and do nothing. That drove him, from my perspective. It was, ‘what we can accomplish, let’s get something done.’”
During his work on ESSA, Alexander insisted on a prominent role for states in K-12 accountability, school turnarounds, testing, and more. But, as chairman of the Senate education committee, he worked with Murray to get a bipartisan deal that ultimately passed the Senate 85-12 and the House 359-64.
Alexander said in an interview shortly after the bill’s passage that the law was able to attract such broad, bipartisan support in part because “everybody was really fed up with Washington telling 100,000 public schools so much about what to do, and it was really creating a backlash on efforts to set higher standards, namely [the Common Core State Standards] and teacher evaluation.”
And he said he believed the new law would reshape the K-12 landscape.
“What I believe is that when we take the handcuffs off, we’ll unleash a whole flood of innovation and ingenuity classroom by classroom, state by state that will benefit children,” Alexander said.
He kept a close eye on the law after it passed and wasn’t afraid to defend what he thought were its strongest points. Most notably, at the start of the Trump administration, he led the push to scrap the Obama administration’s accountability regulations for the law, which he said went beyond the bounds of ESSA.
Still, Alexander was willing to “make principled compromises,” Fryer added. “He made sure the things that were important to him got done. … He would never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
During ESSA’s passage, Alexander enlisted the help of the National Education Association, a union with 3 million members typically aligned with Democrats, to get the bill across the finish line.
In the past, Republicans who have chaired the education committee have been willing to meet with the union, but Alexander “partnered with us,” said Mary Kusler, the senior director of the NEA Center for Advocacy.
“It will be hard to find somebody who has the senator’s extensive personal background in education, but what I become increasingly concerned about is that it’s going to be harder and harder to find senators who are willing to work across party lines period,” Kusler said. “Sen. Alexander never made a name for himself by standing in the corner and throwing bombs. Sen. Alexander made a name by getting out from the corner and finding a way to meet people in the middle.”
Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said in a statement that, “[Alexander] has been a great partner on so many bipartisan bills—from fixing No Child Left Behind, FDA reform, and more. I’m looking forward to two more years of productive work with him. He has served our country and his state for so many years, and I wish him the best!”
Alexander’s unwillingness to make his strong support for school choice a make-or-break issue for ESSA’s passage makes him unusual among Capitol Hill lawmakers, said Martin R. West, a former senior adviser to Alexander on education.
“He’s one of the few people I know who’s a true principled federalist,” said West, who is now a professor of education at Harvard University.
West recalled that staffers from other Senate offices were frequently impressed with the senator’s detailed grasp of the issues when they met with him.
“Their reaction was always one of amazement about his eagerness and ability to get in the weeds of complex policy topics,” West said. “No one on either side of the aisle can match the depth of his experience in education.”
Record of Achievements
Despite their strong relationship, Alexander and Murray clashed over at least one major issue since ESSA’s passage: The confirmation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Alexander helped drag her nomination across the finish line, and Vice President Mike Pence ultimately had to break a tie vote in her favor. Murray, meanwhile, said that DeVos wasn’t qualified for the job and criticized the process as rushed.
Earlier this year, Alexander helped push through a rewrite of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which was written to provide states more control over CTE issues while also requiring them to make “meaningful progress” toward their own achievement goals. That bill passed with virtually unanimous support, including from the president. This year, Alexander also helped write a bill to deal with the opioid epidemic that among other things provides for $50 million in annual grants to help school districts with referral and treatment.
Further back, Alexander was also involved in the Child Care Development Block Grant Act in 2014, which aimed to increase standards at child-care facilities and improve the alignment of child-care systems. He also worked on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014, which was written to improve job-training programs.
And he played a major role in a 2008 rewrite of the Head Start Act, which required low-performing programs to recompete for their grants. In particular, Alexander championed a provision to designate about 200 “Centers of Excellence” to serve as model programs.
He was also a lead author of the 2007 America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act, a bipartisan law that seeks to increase funding for basic scientific research and improve math and science education.
Legacy Beyond Congress
Alexander’s K-12 legacy extends far beyond his time in Congress. As governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1986, he created one of the nation’s first state pay-for-performance programs, offering teachers who were rated “outstanding” as much as $7,000 a year more in extra pay. He also boosted requirements for teacher certification, created alternative schools for disruptive students and summer programs for gifted children, and extended the school year to 180 days from 175.
In 1986, he was asked by then-U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett to serve on a study group on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the series of tests known as the Nation’s Report Card. The group recommended the creation of what came to be called the National Assessment Governing Board to oversee NAEP.
As education secretary, Alexander helped push an agenda known as America 2000, which called for national standards in core academic subjects and voluntary national tests to match. He also called for $500 million for a new private school voucher program.
And as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, Alexander sought to scrap the federal Education Department entirely.
What’s Left to Do
It’s unclear if Alexander will be able to check a long-standing priority off his to-do list before stepping down: reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which hasn’t gotten a makeover since 2008.
At this point, advocates expect him to try, but say it’s a long shot. He has better chance of getting more-limited legislation making it easier for students to apply for federal student financial aid across the finish line. He may also be able to push through an update of child-abuse prevention laws or the Education Sciences Reform Act, which governs the Institute of Education Sciences, the department’s research arm.
Alexander could also choose to work on updating the laws governing student-data privacy and special education.
If Republicans control the Senate in 2021, the Republican who’s next in line to lead the committee is Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. Enzi previously served as the committee chairman from 2005 to 2007.
An alternative version of this article ran in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as GOP Education Torch-Bearer Lamar Alexander Stepping Down