FLOOR SPEECH: Every Child Achieves Act

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to vitiate the quorum call.

I rise today to speak about the Every Child Achieves Act—the bill we have all been waiting for, for nearly fifteen years, to fix the flawed, one-size-fits-all No Child Left Behind Act. 

I would like to begin by praising Senator Alexander, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and Senator Murray, the Ranking Member, for the way they have managed this legislation from the very beginning.  Senate process may be “inside baseball” and not very interesting to many, but it is important to note that both Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray led the work on this bill in a way that has fostered consensus building and constructive negotiations. 

More importantly, the process they led allowed the voices of the American people to be heard.  That is why this legislation was recommended to the Senate unanimously by the HELP Committee in April.  That conduct is continuing this week on the Senate floor.  I am not overstating the importance of this when I say that allowing all American voices to be heard on this important legislation is in the best tradition of the United States Senate and to the benefit of our nation.  And, it makes for better legislation.

I would also like to praise the staff with whom my office has worked, especially David Cleary, Peter Oppenheim, Lindsay Fryer, and Bill Knudsen with Senator Alexander and Leanne Hotek with Senator Murray.  They are true professionals, and hardworking staff who are a credit to their Senators, their states, and the United States Senate.

Why do I support the Every Child Achieves Act?  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.  

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, or “AY” 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.  They are gone.  States will again be able to decide what qualifications and skills to demand of teachers and principals, whether to have a statewide evaluation system, and if so, whether those evaluations include growth in student proficiency.   

I am aware that some across the country—and indeed, I have heard from some folks in Alaska—are concerned that the Every Child Achieves Act does not do enough to return local control to schools.  That it perpetuates Common Core Standards.  In fact, the Every Child Achieves Act specifically and expressly prohibits the Secretary from having any authority to—and I quote, “mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision over any of the challenging State academic standards adopted or implemented by a State.”

I have also heard that some are concerned that the bill maintains Secretarial approval of State Plans, with the implication that the Secretary will be able to deny or change elements of States’ plans—such as state standards, assessments, or accountability systems—as a condition of approval.  But the Every Child Achieves Act also places a number of limitations on the Secretary’s authority over States’ Plans. 

The Every Child Achieves Act prohibits the Secretary from requiring a State to include or delete any element of its state standards from the State Plan, use specific assessment instruments or items, set goals, timelines, weights or significance to any indicators of student proficiency, include or delete from the Plan standards, measures, assessments, student growth, benchmarks or goals of student achievement for school accountability, any aspect of teacher or principal quality, effectiveness, or evaluations systems, or require any data collection beyond current reporting requirements.  There are similar prohibitions scattered throughout the Every Child Achieves Act. 

In short, Mr. President, I am confident that the Every Child Achieves Act returns control of state standards, curriculum, instruction, assessments, educator qualifications, and school accountability to the State of Alaska. 

I also have other reasons for supporting the Every Child Achieves Act that will directly impact students, parents, educators, and communities across Alaska in a positive way—and provisions that Alaskans asked for particularly. 

First, I thank my colleague, Senator Boxer, for her work to craft and support the After School for America’s Children Act.  She and I worked well together on this bill to update and strengthen 21st Century Community Learning Center afterschool programs across the country.  With her support, for which I am grateful, I was able to work with Senators Warren, Murray, Franken, Sanders, Bennet, Baldwin, Roberts, Cassidy, Isakson, Hatch, Collins, and others to make sure this important program—that keeps our children safe and engaged after school and during the summer—works for all states.  After much close negotiation, the After School for America’s Children Act, with some amendments, was included in the Every Child Achieves Act by unanimous consent of the HELP Committee. 

As you know, Alaska Native peoples are an important part of my great state.  And there are several provisions I was able to include in the Every Child Achieves Act to better meet their needs.

At my request, the Every Child Achieves Act requires the states and school districts, where applicable, to consult and engage with the American Indian, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian tribes and parents in creating State and Local Plans and implementing federal education programs that serve Native students in order to meet their cultural, language, and education needs.  These are our nation’s first peoples, with whom the United States has a Constitutionally mandated responsibility to interact with on a government to government basis.  It is about time that tribes and Native organizations throughout the country will be part of designing the plans and shaping the programs used to improve schools that serve Native students.

In addition, Senators Franken and I, in coordination with Senator Tester, were able to include a new program in the Every Child Achieves Act to help our nation’s first peoples maintain and revitalize their Native languages through the schools.  This new grant program will support the creation, improvement, and expansion of Native language immersion schools, in which Alaska Native, American Indian, and Native Hawaiian students learn their lessons through their ancestral languages.  This opportunity will help preserve the fast-vanishing Native languages of our first peoples.  Just imagine, Mr. President, if the English language was only spoken by a few grandparents.  We could lose the combined wisdom of the ages, the poetry, and our understanding of ourselves and our world that the English language conveys to us.  That is what is happening to the first Americans, and to terrible effect.  The Native American and Alaska Native Language Immersion Schools and Programs will help Native language immersion schools develop curriculum and assessments, provide professional development to teachers and other staff, and carry out activities that will promote the maintenance and revitalization of these endangered languages.  I am extremely proud of the part I played in getting this program into the Every Child Achieves Act and I thank my colleagues for the parts they played. 

In addition, at my request, the Every Child Achieves Act eliminates some technical red tape that made it nearly impossible for Alaska’s 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.  While it is more than complicated to explain, suffice to say that many rural Alaskan school districts will not have to bang their heads against a brick wall of illogical and contradictory federal rules after this provision is enacted.  That is always a good thing.  I would only point out that fixing this problem started because a handful of school business officials and superintendents took the time to reach out to me to let me know there was a problem.  Truly, this is an example of democracy at work.

I am also quite proud to have helped to include strong improvements to the Alaska Native Educational Equity Program, or “ANEP” in this legislation, Mr. President.  For some years, Alaska Native leaders have asked, why do schools get all the Title VII Indian Education money and most of the ANEP funding?  They explained, they are more than ready to take on more responsibility to help their children achieve in school.  Alaska Native leaders have a valuable, indeed an indispensable, role to play in designing and implementing programs to help our children succeed.  These are sound arguments.

While Alaska receives no funding from the Bureau of Indian Education, and our schools receive the Title VII Part A funding, the government to government relationship between the federal government and Alaska tribes and Native organizations has not been not fully honored under ANEP.  Under the amendments included in the Every Child Achieves Act, ANEP funds will either go directly to tribes and Native organizations that have expertise running education programs, or the funds will go to tribes and Native organizations without such experience who partner with school districts.  In addition, tribes and tribal organizations may partner with the university and other non-Native entities if they choose to do so.  This will not only honor our Constitutional relationship to Alaska Natives, but ensure they can take on more responsibility for helping their children succeed.  This is only right.

Mr. President, in closing, I would just say that the Every Child Achieves Act is a very, very good piece of legislation and it is getting better each day as we consider additional amendments.  It is far, far better than No Child Left Behind. 

While I am positive that each of us will have a few thoughts about how this could be the perfect piece of legislation if only one or two more changes were made, on the whole this is a great improvement over the current, failed law.  I intend to vote for its passage.

I yield the floor.