Op-Ed: Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind

Twenty-two to zero. In sports, that sounds like a convincing football score. In the halls of the United States Senate, though, such unanimity is nearly unheard of. But I am proud to tell Alaska’s parents, students and teachers that this is exactly the result we got after weeks of consensus building and constructive negotiating to draft the Every Child Achieves Act — the antidote to the flawed No Child Left Behind law — as it passed out of committee and was sent to the Senate floor for debate.

The committee vote and all that went into it didn’t grab a whole lot of headlines or attention; as a matter of fact, this may be the first you’ve heard of it. Perhaps there were other subjects grabbing headlines; maybe there wasn’t enough partisan bickering to draw a TV camera. But when it comes to delivering results and restoring major decisions about education policies back to the state and local level, this was a 22-0 success story.

Whenever Alaskans and I talked about the No Child Left Behind law, it was clear that no one — educators, students, parents, or tribes — was happy. The one-size-fits-all mandates, poor tribal consultation, and the lack of state and local control over our children’s education were not working. The Every Child Achieves Act that came out of committee gets the federal government out of the way and makes sure the Secretary of Education cannot dictate education standards, student tests, school accountability or teacher evaluations.

As a member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which came together for our students, I am proud that I was able to successfully negotiate with my colleagues a number of provisions and policy changes into the bill that Alaskans said they needed to better teach our students and meet the needs of our unique communities.

This collaboration was just the most recent example of how the United States Senate is getting back to being a functioning body again. We’re taking votes. We’re allowing amendments from both sides of the aisle. We actually voted on more amendments before Easter than we had in all of 2014! But in 2011 and 2013, the two previous efforts to fix NCLB went nowhere due to the partisan mindset that had infected the entire Senate. This time, the Republican chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander from Tennessee, worked closely with his counterpart, Democrat Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. All members of the committee were asked for their ideas and many were accepted into the base bill. During negotiations, many amendments offered by both Democrats and Republicans were accepted unanimously. Others were adopted by majority vote — just the way the Senate is supposed to work.

Just as important as ‘how’ the bill was crafted is ‘what’ was in the final legislation reported out of committee and how it responds to the concerns vocalized by Alaskans. My top priority was making sure that any rewrite of No Child Left Behind gave more power to make decisions about Alaska’s schools to Alaska and our local communities. The failed experiment of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) had to go, too. Under the Every Child Achieves Act, done and done. The failed “Highly Qualified Teacher” mandates that made little sense and did not work had to go, too. Gone. States will again be able to decide what qualifications and skills to demand of teachers and principals and whether or not to include growth in student learning in educators’ evaluations instead of being told to do so and how.

In addition, I was able to make sure that some provisions were added that reflect Alaska’s unique culture and geography. The final bill out of committee makes sure that the federal government engages with the Native community to get their stakeholder input on how best to meet the needs of Alaska Native children. I was able to get rid of regulatory red tape that made it nearly impossible for our rural school districts to claim Impact Aid dollars to which they are entitled, just because NCLB and Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act didn’t play well together. I also led the charge to help working parents and keep kids safe after school by making sure the 21st Century Community Learning Center program that sustains many afterschool programs was maintained and improved.

All these provisions and more are found within the legislative accomplishment that hit the rare Congressional ‘sweet spot’ for unanimous passage. Now that it heads to the Senate floor, 78 additional Senators will get their chance to offer improvements to the bill, but 22-0 sends a clear statement that the Every Child Achieves Act has the wind at its back and the support of nearly a quarter of the Senate already. I look forward to continued debate, but I am very proud of the work that has been done so far to repeal and replace No Child Left Behind.