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Knoxville News Sentinel: Sen. Lamar Alexander and thinking – and accomplishing – the educationally unthinkable in Washington

Washington has given up power? 
Unheard of. Absurd.
Washington relinquished authority? 
Why unheard of, absurd, and unthinkable?

(With apologies, or a bow, to “Fiddler on the Roof”)

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander led the charge to bring about a goal of his that a year ago few, if any, believed could happen. The Washington tradition of gathering more power to itself in the area of education has been substantially, and somewhat remarkably, reversed.

A Washington Post conservative blogger called Alexander’s legislation “the right’s biggest victory in years.”

In 2014, shortly before the elections that swept Republicans into a U.S. Senate and House majority, I visited with Sen. Alexander in his Washington office.

I asked Alexander, a former two-term Tennessee governor and U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, what would be his legislative priority if Republicans gained the congressional majority and he became the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee chairman.

His response appeared in my Nov. 2, 2014 column headlined, “No national school board: Alexander's priority if he becomes Senate committee chair.”

“I’m going to introduce a bill to ensure we never have a national school board,” he said. “If we have a majority my priority will be to pass this legislation…The issue is federalism and where should these decisions be made. The thing most Tennesseans think is decisions ought to be made as close to the schools as possible, not in Washington.”

And now, it’s happened. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) largely replaces No Child Left Behind, passed during administration of President George W. Bush. Through ESSA, approved overwhelmingly in Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama, Washington has released a great deal of its clammy grip on American education, and Alexander was the driver of this bi-partisan bus for schools.

For this legislative accomplishment Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin on Dec. 13 named Alexander the “Distinguished Pol of the Week” in her blog, The Right Turn.”

Wrote Rubin, “It was telling that Alexander, regarded by the right-wing as some sort of squishy RINO, was responsible for the right’s biggest victory in years…No amount of bellyaching from the far right, however, can diminish the significance of the accomplishment or obscure evidence of true bipartisan governance in pursuit of conservative goals. For all that we can say, well done, Senator Alexander.”

A component of the legislation concerns the much discussed, and often reviled, Common Core program.

“We wrote into the law language specifically prohibiting the secretary of education from telling any state it has to adopt any specific academic standards, including Common Core,” Alexander said in a telephone conversation. “The department of education can’t incentivize, order, coerce, anything.

“What that means,” he added, “is that Washington presidents, senators, congressman, have nothing to do with Tennessee academic standards.”

Alexander said that if Tennesseans – or residents of any state - don’t like the educational standards set for their children, they no longer have to appeal to members of congress or senators, but can bring those issues to their governors, to their local school boards, or other closer-to-home officials. Washington is out of the picture.

What moved the legislative ball?

“In the end both the left and right got fed up with Washington telling 100,000 schools too much about what to do,” he said. “On the right we’ve always been for local control of schools. On the left over the last six or seven years the secretary of education had become a national school board.”

States for years had to request No Child Left Behind waivers if states wanted to be freed from various provisions of the law. States applying or reapplying for waivers had to prove to the department that they were, in the department’s words, “On track to meet current commitments and requirements…”

To Alexander’s point, on Sept. 3, 2015, Education Weekly listed states’ NCLB waiver status. Only seven states hadn’t requested NCLB waivers. Education Weekly said, “The Obama administration announced in 2011 it would award waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act to states that agreed to adopt certain education ideas, such as teacher evaluations tied to student test scores.”

Said Alexander, ““All sorts of rules and instructions about what happens, what is a successful school, all of that was defined in Washington, and that’s all gone. It’s back with the states.”

There are still critics. On the Common Core issue, some on the far right say it should have been legislatively torpedoed in its entirety. However, Alexander said, that would have been Washington telling the states what they must do to satisfy Washington, the same thing about which many complain.

Not all of No Child Left Behind has been left behind. For example, there is still a series of 17 tests administered between the 3rd and 12th grades. However, Alexander says, “What to do about the results of the tests has been transferred to the Knox County School Board,” and other school boards and local officials across the country.

Washington reversing its traditional approach and returning power to the states? Unthinkable! Absurd!

But, in this case, it’s the end of a tradition.