In this month’s questionnaire, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), one of the principal architects of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), answers questions about the new law, its legacy, and his favorite sports team.
Why is ESSA an important piece of legislation?
It fixed a law that everyone wanted fixed and did so in a bipartisan way. By reversing the trend toward a national school board and restoring to states and communities, principals, and teachers the responsibility for improving student achievement, it will provide much-needed stability and certainty to federal education policy. It will also inaugurate a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement.
What are two significant provisions in ESSA for principals?
First, the law ends the federal waiver mandate on teacher and principal evaluation systems and returns decisions about how to identify and reward outstanding teachers and principals back to states and local school districts. Second, it provides new opportunities with dedicated resources for states and school districts to support programs and activities designed to improve the recruitment, training, and effectiveness of principals.
What do you think will be the legacy of ESSA 25 years from now?
The Wall Street Journal called it “the largest devolution of federal control to states in a quarter-century.” When we look back in 25 years, we’ll see that governors, teachers, principals, and parents worked together to raise standards, improve teaching, implement real accountability, and expand the excellence of our schools, rather than depending on unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., to tell them how to do it.
What was the most difficult challenge you faced in getting this legislation passed?
The most difficult challenge was that the Senate operates by unanimous consent, and everyone is an expert on education. It’s like going to a football game at the University of Tennessee with 100,000 people in the stands—every one of whom once played football and knows which play to call next. It was a very complicated piece of legislation with crocodiles lurking at every turn, but, eventually, Sen. Patty Murray, the senior Democrat on our education committee, and I were able to work with senators, consider their points of view, and develop a consensus.
How did your experience as secretary of education factor into your role here?
In 1992, when Congress was preparing to pass a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, I wrote President George H.W. Bush a memorandum urging him to veto it because it would amount to a national school board. We want the president to emphasize the importance of education. I believe we need national education goals and higher standards and better ways to evaluate teachers, but I believe that is best done by states and communities, not by orders from Washington, D.C. That experience 25 years ago was a major factor in my attitude toward fixing No Child Left Behind.
Who is your favorite movie actor?
Peter Sellers, one of the great comedic actors in the history of cinema.
What is your favorite sports team?
Tennessee Volunteers, any and all of their teams.