Voices of Alaska: Education reform achieves major milestone

  • By Sen. Lisa Murkowski
  • Saturday, December 12, 2015 4:28pm
  • Opinion

Fixing the flawed No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been years in the making. This past week, we’ve reached a major milestone. On Thursday, the President signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, referred to as “ESSA.”

Congress passed NCLB in 2001, the year before I came to the U.S. Senate. It was intended to help states identify and focus on the educational disparities among students and take steps to improve schools that did not serve students well. That was necessary. Despite its obvious flaws, NCLB had good intentions. It delivered both a level of understanding about which children were being left behind and a realization that our schools must be accountable for each and every child.

What was wrong with NCLB was that it imposed one-size-fits-all solutions from over four thousand miles away. NCLB brought us “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) that gave our schools 31 ways to fail and almost no chance to succeed. It gave us a definition of a “Highly Qualified Teacher” that could not measure whether a teacher effectively engaged our children in learning. It brought the mandate that the first solution to improve a school was to fire the principal. And while Alaska received the Secretary’s “waiver” from NCLB’s requirement that every child reach proficiency by 2014, that “waiver” came with more objectionable conditions and mandates. Essentially, NCLB and waivers brought us a “national school board.”

Since coming to the United States Senate in 2002, I have met with school board members, parents, educators, and students from across Alaska who were discouraged and sometimes just plain fed up with NCLB’s mandates, and who shared their ideas for fixing it. Throughout the past year, I have received phenomenal input from so many around the state as I played my part in writing ESSA as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. My focus in this work was for Alaskans to have the ability to make the decisions that impact our schools, educators, students, and parents.

So what will ESSA do? First, it will maintain the idea that we must identify which schools are doing a good job of serving our children and which ones need to improve. But it will eliminate unattainable AYP standards and empower Alaskans to decide how to help our struggling schools. As we move away from the “national school board” we also ensure that mandates for national standards like Common Core are prohibited. Under ESSA, states and communities will decide what standards our students and schools are expected to meet, the skills teachers need, and how to evaluate them. In so many ways, ESSA brings control of our schools back to where it belongs — to our communities, school districts, parents, and tribes — so that school accountability starts and ends right here at home. No more federal control, no more “waivers with strings,” no more “one-size-fits-all” education mandates that never fit here in Alaska.

ESSA also includes a number of provisions I crafted that are important to Alaska, like the After School for America’s Children Act that I co-sponsored with Senator Boxer, so that parents can remain at work after the school day ends, sure that their children are safe and engaged in enriching activities. ESSA also fixes a conflict between the Impact Aid program and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to relieve our rural districts of burdensome paperwork. And I made sure Alaska’s small high schools can calculate their graduation rate appropriately. I was also proud to make sure that Alaska’s Native peoples will have more say in their children’s education and that ESSA will help to revitalize Native languages.

This legislation is another example that Congress is working for the American people again. ESSA was crafted over the course of a year by members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee through open negotiations. Senators were given multiple opportunities in committee and on the Senate floor to have their ideas heard and voted on. Finally, it went through conference with the U.S. House of Representatives, where more changes were adopted. Perhaps that is why the final bill passed both the House and Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority.

The changes enacted by the Every Student Succeeds Act will not happen overnight. The law gives Alaska’s stakeholders time to craft our own plans, discuss them, and come to a consensus. It will be hard work, but it is a responsibility I believe each Alaskan should take seriously. What happens next in Alaska’s schools will be determined by the Alaskans who show up and who share their perspectives. Together, I believe we can do right by Alaska’s children.

Lisa Murkowski represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate.

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