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Alexander: Federal Dollars Should Enable and Encourage—Not Mandate—State, Local K-12 Innovation

At 27th hearing on No Child Left Behind in six years, says “I hope we are not too far from a conclusion”

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2015 – At a roundtable on fixing No Child Left Behind today, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, said the federal government ought to be an enabler and encourager, rather than a mandater, of state and local K-12 innovation.

Today’s roundtable marked the 27th hearing in the last six years about fixing No Child Left Behind or a related elementary and secondary education issue.

Below are excerpts of his prepared remarks:

This is the 27th hearing in the last six years about fixing No Child Left Behind or a related elementary and secondary education issue.

I hope we are not far from a conclusion—from moving from hearings and discussions to marking up a bill.

For today’s roundtable: How can we improve the federal law to encourage more states, districts, and schools to innovate? And when I say law, I should also draw attention to the regulations that have followed these laws.

For example, every state has to submit a plan to the federal government to receive its share of the $14.5 billion Title I program distributed to states for low-income children. That’s about $1,300 for every child who lives at or below the federal poverty line. 

Those Title I applications are reviewed by the Department of Education, as well as by outside experts before you can spend a dime of that money.

In addition, 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are operating under waivers from the out-of-date and unworkable regulations in No Child Left Behind. 

To receive those waivers, states have to submit waiver applications.

In Tennessee, that waiver application was 91 pages long with more than 170 pages of attachments. Since 2012, the state has had to submit eight different updates or amendments to the plan.

In addition to all this, the U.S. Department of Education spends another $9 -10 billion or so on about 90 different programs that are either authorized or funded under No Child Left Behind, with separate application and program requirements. These programs include Promise Neighborhoods and Investing in Innovation.

So are we spending this money in a way that makes it easier or harder for you to innovate and achieve better academic outcomes?

My own view is that the government ought to enable and encourage, not mandate, innovation. It can do this well.

For example, last year Congress overwhelmingly supported reauthorizing the Child Care and Development Block Grant program that gives grants to states that allow parents to receive a voucher for the child care of their choice so they can attend school or go to work.

Seven decades ago the G.I. Bill enabled World War II veterans to attend a college of their choice, helping them become the greatest generation. Today, half our college students have federal grants or loans that follow them to the colleges of their choice, enabling them to buy the surest ticket to a better life and job.

About 98 percent of the federal dollars that go to higher education follow the student to the school they attend.

In K-12, the only money that follows students to the school they attend is the school lunch program.

Now, I’ll turn to Ranking Member Murray for her opening statement and then we’ll get the conversation going.