Yesterday Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced his intention to mark up and pass a bill through his committee to reauthorize the federal government’s primary elementary and secondary education law. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was first enacted in 1965. It is now more commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act, following the legislation’s last reauthorization in 2002 during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Alexander is the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Yesterday’s hearing yesterday was his first as the committee’s chairman, replacing Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) who retired at the end of the last Congress. The committee’s new Ranking Member is Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). Both were members of the committee in the last Congress; Alexander was the former Ranking Member who became Chairman when control of the Senate shifted to Republicans.
“We hope to have a bill ready for [the Senate] floor by end of February,” Alexander said at the start of a two hour and forty minute hearing on the No Child Left Behind Act. The hearing centered on the most controversial provisions of the legislation mandating student testing. Alexander and Murray both focused on testing in their opening remarks.
Alexander repeatedly cited the need for the committee to take a bipartisan approach in writing the new bill. While Republicans have a two vote margin in the full committee (12-10) to approve and send a bill to the Senate floor, Alexander will need the votes of 60 senators to pass the legislation. He did say that while he hopes the committee’s bill will have bipartisan support that “even if we don’t, the bill will go to the floor.”
In his remarks, Alexander spoke of President Obama’s interest in the legislation and a speech Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave last week. In his speech Duncan spoke at length about reform legislation, saying “Let’s dispense with No Child Left Behind, and give states more flexibility. No Child Left Behind created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed, or to reward success. We need to do exactly the opposite. “As Duncan concluded his remarks he said he was looking forward to working with Alexander, Murray, and senior members of the House of Representatives “to reauthorize and fix ESEA.”
Murray also spoke of the need to reform the law, saying yesterday “I hope we can begin conversations about a truly bipartisan approach in the . . . committee to fixing this broken law. I know the Members on my side are anxious to begin this work and continue the long tradition of this Committee tackling tough problems in a bipartisan fashion. Fixing No Child Left Behind should not be a partisan issue. It should be one we work on hand in hand, not as Democrats or Republicans -- but as Americans. This is an issue that isn’t about politics -- it’s about what’s best for kids.”
This will not be the first time that this Senate committee has sent a reauthorization bill to the Senate floor. The committee has worked on reauthorization legislation for the last six years, holding 24 hearings, and sending two bills to the floor that were never considered. Alexander is aware of the need for time on the always-crowded Senate floor which is why he hopes that the committee will finish its work on the bill by the end of February. The last time the Senate considered a reauthorization of the law it took six to seven weeks.
The House of Representatives is also moving quickly. Alexander said a counterpart bill will be on the House floor in late February. The outcome of last November’s election has changed the dynamics of legislating on Capitol Hill, with Republican control of both the House and Senate opening up a greater opportunity for a bill to be sent to the White House.