US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Alexander: “Congress Says: No National School Board”

Tells Education Secretary Duncan that his federal overreach is “undermining” support for high state academic standards and teacher evaluation

Wednesday, April 30, 2014Liz Wolgemuth 202-228-4729

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“Please explain to me how using your waiver authority to place conditions on states about common standards, about performance targets, about teacher evaluation systems that are not otherwise required by federal law and in the case of standards, in my opinion, is prohibited by the law—how does that not amount to, in effect, a national school board?” –Lamar Alexander

Washington, D.C., April 30 – At a Senate hearing today, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) pressed Education Secretary Arne Duncan to explain how the use of his authority to grant waivers to states from the requirements of No Child Left Behind does not amount to a “national school board.”

“Please explain to me how using your waiver authority to place conditions on states about common standards, about performance targets, about teacher evaluation systems that are not otherwise required by federal law and in the case of standards, in my opinion, is prohibited by the law—how does that not amount to, in effect, a national school board?” Alexander said.

He told Secretary Duncan that his federal “overreach” is “undermining” support for high state academic standards and teacher evaluation, and is taking responsibility away from states, local officials, and teachers.

Today’s hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies on the Department of Education’s fiscal year 2015 budget, came six days after the administration revoked Washington state’s waiver from many requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Alexander, the senior Republican on the Senate education committee, said today to Duncan: “You revoked the waiver because the legislature there wouldn’t enact a teacher evaluation system according to your standards. Now, I looked at the law. Federal law, [No Child Left Behind] Section 9527, says, an employee of the federal government can’t mandate, direct or control a school’s curriculum, program of instruction. Section 1232 [of the General Education Provisions Act] said, any department or agency here cannot exercise any direction, supervision, or control over curriculum, program of instruction, personnel. Section 3403 of the Department of Education Organization Act prohibits any direction over curriculum, instruction, personnel.”

“In other words, it’s clear to me the Congress says: ‘No National School Board,’” Alexander said.

Alexander said the administration has turned its authority to grant waivers from No Child Left Behind into a kind of “Mother, May I?” relationship with states, where states ask for waivers, and the administration makes it contingent on several conditions. 

“The child says ‘Mother, may I go outside and play?’ and you say ‘Yes, you may, but you need to sweep the floor, and make your bed, and cook the breakfast and go to school, and do your homework, and be nice to your father and do all these things.’ And the child says, ‘I didn’t ask about that,’ and the mother says, ‘Well, that’s what you have to do.’

Alexander detailed the administration’s requirements on states to get a waiver: “Your requirements say you’ve got to adopt standards. There are two versions of that that are approved, only two. You’ve got to adopt ambitious, achievable performance goals about whether schools are succeeding or failing. There are two versions of that, only two. You’ve got to have prescriptive turnaround models if schools are low performing and have significant achievement gaps. There are four types of that, only four. And you’ve got to have a certain kind of teacher and principal evaluation that’s got to meet each of seven federal criteria.”

Alexander, as governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, helped lead the state to become the first to tie teacher evaluations to student performance. “You know how much I care about teacher evaluation,” he said today. “But I don’t think you can do it from here, or order it from here, or define it from here.”

He said the administration’s overreach is creating “a backlash among conservatives who don’t like the federal government involved and backlash among teachers’ unions who don’t want any form of student achievement related to teacher evaluation.”

“You’re undermining, I’m afraid, the very high standards and teacher evaluation systems that both of us want. In other words, I think the way to get where both of us would like to go is not by ordering it from here, but by letting the governors and the states have the responsibility to do it.”

Alexander said: “We agree that we want higher standards for our 100,000 public schools. We agree that teacher evaluation based on student performance is sort of the holy grail of elementary and secondary education. Where I’m afraid we disagree is that I believe that’s a state and local responsibility and you believe it can be required from Washington.”

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