FLOOR SPEECH: Final Passage of Every Child Succeeds Act

Mr. President, I would like to take just a moment to talk very briefly about the Every Student Succeeds Act.

I know that several of my colleagues have come down to the floor, just a couple of minutes ago the Senator from Wyoming, to really talk about the good things we’ve seen in this education reform bill and celebrate how the bill ends “the national school board” by putting more control for our schools in our state and local hands. And I think that is worthy of note. For the schools, for the administrators, for the teachers, for the parents—I think this is worthy of celebration.

I am more than pleased that the Every Student Succeeds Act will finally allow our states to judge our schools by more than just test results, and allow our teachers to do what they want to do. They want to be able to teach our kids, and really engage in the art and the love of learning, and not just prepare for a test. We all know that our children are more than what can be described in some of these fill in the bubble exercise tests. And teachers are more than robots that just stand in front of a class to follow a script that has been orchestrated from elsewhere. I tell many, both Alaskans and Outside, that I got my political start, if you will, as the president of my son’s PTA in our local neighborhood school. And I came to understand, very up-front and personal, what No Child Left Behind meant, not only just for my son’s school but for schools all across Alaska. You have an area of a lot of geography and not a lot of numbers in terms of populations. NCLB did not work for us as a very rural state. One-size-fits-all did not work. My son’s school, our public school, was deemed a “failing school” in the first year that Adequate Yearly Progress was the standard of measurement. And we were dubbed a “failing school” because we had one subcategory of students where the numbers were so small, but we didn’t have enough students show up to take the test on that day. We all know there were 31 different ways to fail AYP, and little Government Hill Elementary in Anchorage, Alaska failed that first year. That’s tough as a neighborhood. You’re saying “why?”, “what’s wrong with our school?”, “what’s wrong with our neighborhood?” And really there was nothing wrong with our school, there was nothing wrong with our neighborhood. What we had was a directive that came out of Washington, DC, some 4,000 miles away, and it just didn’t work for us.

So I am more than pleased to join with superintendents, principals, and school board members who celebrate that federal bureaucrats will be prohibited from dictating standards, assessments, and school ability plans.  No more federal control, no more “waivers with strings”, no more “one-size-fits-all” education mandates that really never fit us in Alaska.

I also place a high value on the fact that this bill recognizes the rights of our American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian peoples throughout the country and makes sure that they know they have a greater say in how public schools will serve their children. And also that this bill will support the revitalization of Native languages by supporting Native language immersion schools—always one of my priorities, and I’m pleased we see this in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

I am very grateful for the support of colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Senator Boxer worked with me on this, to make sure that we maintained federal support for afterschool programs that allow parents to remain at work if they need to after the school day ends, knowing that their children are safe and engaged in good and enriching activities that help them learn in a fun way. So making sure we had that critical piece in the bill was important.

I am also grateful for the support for a number of Alaska-specific provisions that will ensure that this bill—unlike No Child Left Behind—will truly fit Alaska’s needs. I appreciate a great deal the work Senator Alexander put into working through these issues, understanding the Alaska piece, recognizing that sometimes we have entities that are different than what you have in the Lower 48, and how you translate that when you’re drafting language to make sure it works is key. And his staff worked with mine to make sure that we didn’t drop the balls in this area.

Those of us who are parents realize that this legislation will give us a stronger voice in our children’s education and encourage parents to take the lead in helping our schools communicate better with parents rather than the other way around. Coming into the politics of the schools, knowing that your parents have a voice in what is happening with the schools is critically important.

Over the years, we have all met with the teachers, school board members, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents and even students from our states who are so discouraged, very discouraged, sometimes just plain fed up with No Child Left Behind’s top down control over every decision.

The Every Student Succeeds Act guarantees that our parents, teachers, tribes, community leaders, and principals have a seat at the table to design how our schools serve our children.  It even guarantees our governors a voice while drastically reducing the role of the Secretary of Education here in Washington, D.C.

I want to acknowledge the good work of the members of the Senate HELP Committee, and their staffs—we all know that their staffs just put in amazing hours to get the bill to this point—working together, compromising, negotiating, and making their cases for the priorities of their constituents.  This bill is, Mr. President, one of the great examples, the poster child if you will, of how Congress should be working around here. It’s hard work, it requires compromise, and an open amendment process in committee which we absolutely had, days and days of process in committee, on the floor, and in conference committee. We had a real, live, old-fashioned conference committee. And it was an absolute pleasure to be part of a process where you could go in with your colleagues from the House, on the other side of the table, going back and forth and further perfecting a bill.  

In just a few days, the baton now on education reform will be handed off to the people of our states.  I look forward to this, and I’m encourage everyone back home to get involved, be aware, know what’s going on. 

It will be a responsibility that every one of our constituents must take seriously.  No matter what role they play in a student’s life, what happens next in each of our states will be determined by the people who show up, who share their perspectives with their state departments of education and their school boards. I believe that coming together this way, at the local level, at that state level, together will be a good job for Alaska’s children, for our nation’s children.

Thank you.  I yield the floor.