On Lamar Alexander’s plans to overhaul the nation’s education system

Sen. Lamar Alexander has a plan to overhaul the education system if he becomes chairman of the Senate’s education committee next year, starting with rewriting the divisive No Child Left Behind act, reports Politico. But his plans face problems, even if Republicans take control of the Senate in November.

Though Alexander has a chummy relationship with current committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa, he’s been quick to decry Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada for circumventing Senate procedures that would give Republicans more of a voice. Alexander said he thinks that if the Senate operated the way Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he will run it, that could make it possible to move stalled education bills.
The No Child Left Behind bill Alexander hopes to pass is starkly different from a bill Senate Democrats have released. It would give states the option of making Title I funds for low-income children “portable” so the funds follow children to the public schools of their choice. It does not authorize the Obama administration’s signature programs, such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation.
House Republicans’ 2013 rewrite of No Child Left Behind is similar enough that analysts say the bill, or something similar to it, could be conferenced with the Senate bill; Alexander, too, said he doesn’t anticipate problems getting House Republicans on board.
His optimism belies the depth of the divide over No Child Left Behind.
Even if Republicans gain several seats after the midterms, they will still need a handful of Democratic votes in order to move a bill. No Child Left Behind legislation is so stalled that 20 percent of education experts surveyed in August by the education consulting group Whiteboard Advisors said they expect it will never happen.
Appealing to former governors who might have an affinity for state and local control, which is emphasized in his bill, could help snag the necessary 60 votes, Alexander said.
How an Alexander-led HELP Committee would approach the next iteration of higher education law is less clear.
“I’ve asked the staff to really start from scratch for different parts of the Higher Education Act,” Alexander said.
He sees himself as a countervailing force to the Obama administration’s push for regulation in areas such as for-profit colleges, and Congress’ tendency to add more regulations to higher education each time it reauthorizes the law. Two main forces, the market and the accreditation system, should do the majority of the work to keep the system in check, Alexander said.
A Republican majority in the Senate doesn’t guarantee Alexander’s ascent to HELP Committee leadership. If McConnell does not win reelection, Alexander could be pulled back into Senate leadership, which he left — to the surprise of many — in 2011.
If Democrats keep the majority, there still will be space for a very different approach to education policy as Harkin retires from the Senate and as HELP Committee chair at the end of this term.