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What Happens on K-12 Policy if Republicans Take Over the U.S. Senate?

By Alyson Klein — July 31, 2014 6 min read
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What if some political prognosticators are right and the U.S. Senate flips to GOP control in November? What happens to key pieces of education legislation, including the reauthorization of the outdated No Child Left Behind Act, which has been stymied by partisan paralysis for years?

The person best positioned to make an educated guess on those questions is Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate education committee. Alexander, who is facing a primary challenge but is expected to prevail, is the likeliest candidate to take over the helm of the Senate education committee if the chamber flips to GOP control in the fall.

Alexander is a former U.S. Secretary of Education (under the first President George Bush), and college president (of the University of Tennessee). Before those gigs, he served as governor of Tennessee, and championed one of the earliest experiments with merit pay for teachers.

I asked him a series of ‘what if’ questions, based on a possible Senate turnover.

Some folks expect that reauthorization of NCLB would move much faster in a united Congress, where Republicans have control of both chambers. Are they right?

Alexander will certainly try to make that happen. “If Republicans take over the Senate, and I’m fortunate enough to be chairman of the committee, [NCLB renewal] will be a top priority,” Alexander said. He pointed out that he and the current chairman of the committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., have had a productive relationship, but said they have “philosophical differences” when it comes to K-12 education. (Harkin and committee Democrats approved an NCLB renewal bill last year. Alexander opposed it.)

But if Alexander gets the chairman’s gavel: “We’ll begin with the bill we introduced last year,” he said, referring to the NCLB renewal legislation he put forward that got support from all of the GOP members of the education panel. “We’ll listen to Democratic members of the Senate and Democratic members of the committee.”

And he expects there to be bipartisan support, if only to get rid of the current regime of NCLB waivers. “The Education Secretary has states over a barrel with the need for waivers from unworkable requirements,” he said. “I think there are a lot of Democratic senators whose constituents don’t want a national school board.” (“National school board” is a favorite Alexander-ism.)

It’s worth noting that Alexander has a history of working with Democrats to get changes to K-12 legislation that fly in the face of the Obama administration’s priorities. When the Senate education panel was considering a renewal of the NCLB law in 2011, for instance, Alexander and some Democrats teamed up on an amendment that seriously watered down the School Improvement Grant program, which required states to choose one of four prescriptive turnaround models for their lowest performing schools. The amendment had the support of the National Education Association.

Would the GOP Senate bill be easier to conference with the House’s NCLB bill?

“Oh, it would be much easier,” he said “Our bill and the House bill are first cousins.” (That’s what Alexander said last summer, when the House NCLB renewal bill passed.) “Of course, we’ll have to accommodate the fact that we have to get 60 votes in the Senate.”

Both pieces of legislation would largely get the federal government out of the accountability business and let states design their own systems. They would scrap the SIG program and turn over the responsibility for identifying and fixing low-performing schools to states. And neither bill would require states and districts to create teacher evaluation systems based on student outcomes—all big changes from the waivers. Both bills would also allow Title I dollars for disadvantaged kids to follow students to the public school of their choice, including a charter school.

How does Alexander expect Common Core to play in NCLB reauthorization? Would the Senate eat up hours of floor time yelling about the standards?

“That’s what’s the Senate’s for, isn’t it?” Alexander said. “Issues [come up] because they need to be resolved.” He thinks the Common Core State Standards may become less politically toxic if Congress passes a reauthorization that makes it clear states set their own standards, something he thinks has become confusing under waivers.

Speaking of which, what is Alexander hearing from educators on NCLB waivers?

“Well, they are very unhappy about them,” he said. “They really think that Washington has no business trying to micromanage what happens in schools.” In particular, he said, “Teacher evaluation is hard enough to do without Washington second-guessing the states.”

Alexander has been very active on school choice lately, including introducing a bill that would allow states to take almost all of their federal K-12 funds and combine them into one giant block grant aimed at creating scholarships for low-income kids to be used at any school, private or public—a pretty bold and controversial move. Would he insist that legislation be part of any NCLB reauthorization?

The short answer is no. “I would like to pass it, but it’s not a part of the Republican bill we introduced last year; it’s a separate piece of legislation,” he said. He deliberately stuck with allowing federal dollars to flow to any public school of parents’ choice in his more comprehensive NCLB renewal bill “so that it would attract support, rather than repel support. ... I’m trying to get a result.”

Would the Obama administration’s top priorities, Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation program, and the School Improvement Grant program, go away in a Republican Senate?

“Probably so,” he said. “I think the federal government spends education money best when it empowers states to do things. That means fewer competitive grant programs.” Alexander is a fan, however, of the Teacher Incentive Fund, which doles out grants to districts to create alternative pay programs, and federal funds for charter schools.

What about more-targeted bipartisan bills, such as the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant program (passed the Senate) and the renewal of the Education Science Reform Act (passed the House)? They may still be pending at the end of this Congress, would Alexander want to take them up in the next?

“Yes. What I want to do is move quickly on them. On those bills, there’s more likely to be a consensus,” Alexander said.

He’s also excited to move on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which has implications for college access and teacher preparation.

Would HEA or NCLB reauthorization move first?

Alexander said he should probably talk to his Senate colleagues before giving a firm answer on that one. But he also noted that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are ready with their positions on K-12. It will take a bit longer for them to get up to speed on higher education.

More tidbits:

•If Alexander is chairman, “deregulation” will be the new watchword, both on K-12 and higher education policy.

•Alexander is really excited about a forthcoming bill he’s introducing with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to super-streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid, or FAFSA. “Whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate, we think that can get bipartisan support,” he said.

•Alexander once said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was Obama’s best cabinet pick. “He still might be,” he told me. “I have a good relationship with him. I don’t agree with him on a number of issues but that doesn’t mean I can’t work with him. He’s got a big heart for children and schools.” He noted that the two teamed up on student loans legislation last year.

•Harkin is retiring after this term. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., could take his place at the helm of the panel (if the Democrats keep the Senate) or become the ranking member (if it flips to Republican control). Alexander would be excited to work with her in either role, he told me. “She’s an excellent senator, and she’s proven in her budget work that she knows how to get results.” He gave her high marks for her budget deal with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and her work on the recent reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act.