Sen. Patty Murray is preparing for her latest Senate negotiating job, this time as the leading Democrat on the committee that’s about to reconsider the federal government’s role in K-12 education.
The Washington state Democrat, who helped reach a budget agreement as Senate Budget Committee chairwoman last year, spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday about the key elements she wants to see in the next update of the education law, last revised as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
She pledged to work with Republicans to find common ground, but her speech showed key areas where they’re likely to disagree, particularly on how schools are held accountable for student progress.
Murray, a former preschool teacher, said parents and teachers in her home state complain to her about too many tests in schools. Redundant and unnecessary tests should go, she said. But she argued that annual assessments were “one of the most important tools we have to make sure our schools are working for every student.”
“We know that if we don’t have ways to measure students’ progress, and if we don’t hold states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities,” Murray said. “These are the students who, too often, fall through the cracks. And that’s just not fair. . . . This is a civil rights issue, plain and simple.”
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965, provides federal funding for the nation’s public schools. Testing is likely the toughest hurdle lawmakers will face as they negotiate its revision.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a speech on Tuesday, just before Murray spoke, that it should be up to states and communities, not the federal government, to decide whether schools are succeeding or failing.
He distributed a draft of legislation to committee members on Tuesday and plans to hold a hearing on testing and accountability next week. He later told reporters he had an open mind on testing and would listen to other views.
A former U.S. education secretary and Tennessee governor, Alexander said parts of the No Child Left Behind law were good and should be kept. He singled out the law’s requirement that test results for each school should be reported with a breakdown for subgroups, such as minorities, to make sure that all were making progress.
Murray said the 2001 law set high expectations for schools, but didn’t give them enough resources to meet their achievement goals. She pledged to push for higher spending and expanded access to preschools. As both a mother and a preschool teacher, Murray said she witnessed how “early learning can inspire a child – not just to start kindergarten ready to learn, but also to succeed later in life.”
Murray also said that her own state’s experience showed the failings of the No Child Left Behind law. The Obama administration offered waivers to exempt states from some of the law’s requirements, in exchange for agreements about how states would measure progress.
Forty-two states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico received waivers after they agreed to make student tests an important part of teacher and principal evaluations. Washington state didn’t and lost the waiver, and flexibility in how it could use federal funds as a result.
Murray said parents in the Tri-Cities, Tacoma and other places across the state were receiving letters saying that their children’s schools were failing.
Murray said that federal support for education made it possible for her to stand on the Senate floor. When she was 15, her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the family fell on hard times. Murray said that she and her siblings got a good education in public schools and went to college with help from an early version of the Pell grants for low income students. A Washington state vocational school helped her mother retrain for a job.
“Today, we need to continue to make education a national priority,” she said, “so more families can seize the opportunities that are only possible with access to a good education.”