The top Democrat on the Senate education committee, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, outlined her priorities for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, calling for a bipartisan bill that allows states to reduce redundant testing and expand access to early-childhood education.
In a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Murray spent a bulk of the time talking about testing, the policy debate garnering the most attention as both chambers begin the process of overhauling the outdated law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“I’ve heard from parent after parent and teacher after teacher in Washington state who has told me that not only are students taking too many tests, oftentimes the tests are of low quality or redundant,” Murray said.
In an interview Tuesday, Murray said that she’s willing to consider other testing options, though she had yet to look closely at those offered today in a draft reauthorization from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the education committee.
“I’m willing to talk to all of the stakeholder, Republicans, Democrats, and the White House about how we can make sure the system we have in place today doesn’t just focus on testing,” she said. “There are other ways to look at it, but I want to make sure we don’t lose accountability.”
In her speech on the Senate floor, however, she was firm that annual assessments are “one of the most important tools we have,” and that she would be “very concerned” about any legislative proposal that rolled them back.
“If we don’t have ways to measure students’ progress, and if we don’t hold states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities,” she said.
Annual testing, she emphasized, not only helps parents monitor their child’s progress, but also is essential to shine a light on inequalities in the public education system.
Murray noted, for example, that African-American and Latino students are significantly less likely to attend a high school that offers advanced math classes; that fewer students from low-income backgrounds reach proficiency or higher on assessments compared to their more affluent peers; and that students from low-income districts are generally taught by teachers with less experience than those from wealthier districts.
“We need statewide assessments that allow parents, civil rights groups and policymakers the ability to see how students are doing from district to district,” she said.
Murray also used her Senate floor speech to take a jab at the administration over its NCLB law waivers.
The U.S. Department of Education yanked Washington’s waiver last year since the state doesn’t require state test scores to be used in teacher evaluations. As a result, Washington has had to set aside nearly $40 million for remedies like public school choice and tutoring, and most schools in the state have had to send NCLB-required letters to parents saying their children are attending failing schools.
“I’ve seen firsthand how No Child Left Behind is not working for Washington state,” Murray began. “The law is so bad that the Obama administration began issuing waivers to exempt states from the law’s requirements. Washington state had received a waiver, but lost it last year. As a result, most of the schools in my home state are now categorized as ‘failing.’”
“Not only that,” Murray continued, “Washington now has less flexibility in how to use federal investments in education.”
Finally, Murray said that the reauthorization must include provisions that expand access to early-childhood education.
“Congress needs to catch up with the Democratic and Republican governors and legislators around the country who support investments in early learning,” Murray said, adding that law enforcement, business groups, military leaders, and others support expanding access to preschool.
For anyone who knows Murray’s background as a former preschool teacher and her journey into politics, this attempt to elevate early childhood education comes as no surprise.
It should be noted, however, how difficult this priority will likely be, and not only because the current law solely addresses elementary and secondary education. For one, Republicans generally see early-childhood education a state responsibility.
During the last major push in the Senate to update the law, former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chaired the education committee at the time, also attempted to expand the K-12 law to include early-childhood education, but to no avail. In fact, it didn’t even make it into draft language.
In an interview Tuesday morning, Alexander didn’t directly answer whether he’d be open to the idea of including early childhood education in the NCLB reauthorization. Instead, he emphasized the open process he plans to take.
“The president would like that [including early childhood education] and Sen. Murray would like that and there will be an opportunity for that to be added as an amendment and we can discuss it,” Alexander said. “What I’m trying to do is create an open process where Democratic and Republican members have the chance to offer whatever they want to offer in committee and then do the same on the floor if they don’t succeed in committee.”
Murray wrapped up her speech by reminding her colleagues in the newly elected Republican Congress that President Barack Obama holds veto power and that Republicans must be willing to work with Democrats to craft a bipartisan bill.
“Let me be clear on another point,” Murray said. “The only way Congress will be able to fix this law is by working in a bipartisan way.”
Murray’s speech comes on the heels of a similar one from Duncan, who said Monday that any ESEA rewrite must continue teacher evaluations through student outcomes, the targeting of resources to the lowest-performing schools, and—most relevant to the current debate over updating the law—the law’s current regime of annual, statewide assessments.
Meanwhile, a NCLB reauthorization discussion draft from Alexander’s staff, which Education Week obtained Tuesday, officially begins the legislative process of overhauling the law. You can read more about that here.