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Every Student Succeeds Act

Sound Familiar? Lamar Alexander’s K-12 Positions When He Ran for President

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 10, 2016 4 min read
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If you’ve read any significant amount of Every Student Succeeds Act coverage, you’ve seen Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander come up a lot. After all, he helped write the new law, he’s the head of the Senate education committee, and he’s made it clear he intends to watch ESSA implementation like a hawk.

But there’s a presidential election going on, and you might remember that Alexander himself sought the Oval Office not once, but twice. He’s also served as Tennessee’s governor from 1979 to 1987 and the U.S. secretary of education under former President George H.W. Bush.

In the spirit of Facebook’s Throwback Thursday, I thought it would be neat to take a look at what he said about education back in 1996 and 2000, when he sought the GOP nomination for president, and see how what he said on the campaign trail compares to what candidates are, and are not, saying today.

‘Nothing Would Be More Important’

Let’s go to the 1996 election cycle first. In a February stump speech in Marietta, Ga. that year, Alexander the presidential hopeful said, “I would focus on education. Nothing would be more important.”

Alexander also highlighted his fight with the teachers’ union as governor of Tennessee in order to “pay teachers more for teaching well.” And he stressed his support for a “G.I. Bill” for kids from middle- and low-income families that was basically a proposal for vouchers. Alexander pitched the same proposal ten days earlier in New Hampshire.

“That is better than a U.S. Department of Education, which is one school board too many,” Alexander said in his Marietta speech.

It wasn’t the only time Alexander took a shot at the department during the run-up to the 1996 election. In March 1995, in a speech in his home town of Maryville, Tenn., Alexander promised the audience that as president he would abolish the department “and give you the responsibility for making the decisions yourself. We know what to do.” (This was after Alexander had served a stint as the department’s secretary.)

Also in 1995, Alexander called for an end to Goals 2000, a program initiated by former President Bill Clinton that incentivized states to pursue changes to curriculum and assessment. By contrast, in 1991 when Alexander was education secretary, he unveiled “America 2000,” which called on communities to adopt goals and measure their progress towards them. He also pushed for new forms of federal aid, and a “national examination system” based on “new world standards.”

In the 2000 presidential cycle, public education remained at the forefront of Alexander’s campaign. In 1999, for example, he said that fixing public education would be one of the three core issues in his campaign, along with improving families’ incomes and strengthening national defense.

And also during the 2000 campaign, Alexander panned a proposal by Democratic nominee Vice President Al Gore to offer financial incentives to people who agreed to switch to a teaching career and work in needy schools.

One Notable Legacy

So what are a few takeaways from Alexander’s positions and remarks, and to what extent do his positions live on with today’s GOP candidates?

It’s pretty difficult to imagine a presidential candidate from either major party today declaring that education policy would take priority over every other issue, as Alexander did in 1996. Public schools have gotten a little more attention recently in the 2016 cycle, as the question about what to do to fix Detroit’s schools and how to address mediocre teachers came up in recent Democratic and Republican debates. But so far, in the blizzard of presidential debates and on the campaign trail, K-12 education has played a very minor role.

In particular, given the pushback to the Common Core State Standards and testing from a variety of groups and individuals, it’s hard to imagine any candidate, Democrat or Republican, pushing for “new world standards” or any sort of “national examination system” of the sort Alexander pushed when he was education secretary.

But as for today’s GOP candidates—they have eagerly adopted at least one of Alexander’s positions from 20 years ago: Several of the 2016 GOP hopefuls have called for an end to the Education Department.

Also, Alexander’s description of the Education Department hasn’t changed much. When he’s criticized the Education Department recently, he’s said several times that the department acted like a “national school board” under former Secretary Arne Duncan.

Click the following link to see five key positions each candidate holds on K-12 and see if you can find any other similarities.

Sign of the Times

One way Alexander’s 1996 campaign laid the groundwork for a piece of 2016 election imagery has nothing to do with education policy.

That year, his campaign signs featured “Lamar!” complete with an exclamation point. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has a pretty lengthy track record on K-12 policy himself, deployed signs featuring “Jeb!” during his unsuccessful 2016 presidential run. (Bush also used the exclamation point in his successful campaign for Florida governor in 1998, according to the Christian Science Monitor, a couple of years after Alexander did.)

Photo: Republican presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander gestures during a campaign speech in front of Nashua Town Hall in Nashua, N.H., with supporters who turned up wearing red and black checked jackets, an Alexander trademark, in February, 1996. Elise Amendola/AP-File

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Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.