Teaching Profession

The NEA’s Best Frenemy: Lamar Alexander

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 07, 2016 2 min read
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The NEA just awarded its “Friend of Education” award to Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) for their role in shepherding the Every Student Succeeds Act through Congress. The law replaces the No Child Left Behind Act and devolves much of the authority over schools back to states.

Both honorees showed up in person to collect their award and address the 6,900-member delegation.

Murray has won the award once before, in 2013. But Alexander is the first Republican winner in more than 30 years. (The last Republican winner, in 1984, was Robert Stafford, a Vermont senator.)

It’s an interesting reversal of fortune. As I noted earlier this week, Alexander famously battled the NEA affiliate in Tennessee in the 1980s over a career-ladder program that paid certain teachers more than others.

But none of that rancor was on display today. Instead, in his remarks, Alexander spent nearly all of his address essentially bashing the current and former U.S. secretaries of education for overstepping their authority.

As Washington-watchers know, Alexander has a particular beef with former Secretary Arne Duncan, who issued waivers from the NCLB law that required states to set up new teacher-evaluation regimes and adopt new academic standards.

The NEA was equally unhappy with many of those decisions, saying they were deprofessionalizing teaching and threatening teachers’ livelihood. The union famously called for Duncan’s resignation in 2014.

So, while Alexander’s opposition is grounded in a local-control argument and the union’s in its dislike of the tough accountability policies, the two have developed a good working relationship, resulting in several legislative wins, including ESSA.

Now, Alexander said, “Because of the new law, gone are those waivers. Gone is the common-core mandate. ... Gone is Washington, D.C., telling you exactly how to evaluate teachers and whether your school is succeeding or failing.

“The No Child Left Behind era is over, the Mother-May-I waiver era is over. The new law says the secretary can’t put those mandates back through a federal regulation.”

In actuality, ESSA has set up policy battles at the regulatory level over the specific scope of the U.S. Department of Education’s authority. Those disagreements include the department’s proposed new accountability rules and ideas on supplement-not-supplant, a complicated set of spending rules for federal education funds. Groups including the NEA contend some of those rules go beyond what’s permitted in ESSA. (My colleagues at Politics K-12 have done a masterful job of tracking this, so check out all of their ESSA coverage.)

Alexander reassured delegates that he’ll take steps to make sure that the new regs accord with the text of ESSA.

In all, this award comes as a good reminder that we’re not merely in the post-NCLB era. We’re in an era in which the very Democratic-tilting NEA is perfectly happy to work with Republicans like Alexander to advance its priorities like ESSA—and is willing to buck some of its traditional allies among civil rights groups in order to do so.

Photo: U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander accepts the National Education Association’s Friend of Education Award. —Rick Runion/RA TODAY. Courtesy of the NEA.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.