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Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN)

Brookings Institution/Paul Morigi/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Compromise is key as major U.S. school reform looms

Last week’s 39-to-1 vote by a key congressional panel to scrap the much-maligned No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law governing federal policy for elementary and secondary schools was a rare instance of Democrats and Republicans meeting in the middle on an important national issue. A key architect of that compromise was Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), who has also emerged as the leading congressional advocate for an issue near and dear to the hearts of the U.S. academic research community: the need to ease federal rules that they say are stifling their productivity.

The 19 November vote by House and Senate conferees is the penultimate step in putting to rest NCLB, which was passed in 2002. The new bill, which the House and Senate are expected to pass early next month and which President Barack Obama has applauded, would retain annual testing of math and reading in grades three through eight and require three science tests across a student’s career. It also folds a long-running program to fund innovative math and science initiatives into a block grant to the states.

The new education bill gives states much more authority to monitor student performance, an essential change for conservatives unhappy with the current regime. At the same time, it retains the requirement that states must act to improve conditions for the lowest performing schools, a core principle for liberals. Congress has been unable to strike a similar balance on a host of other contentious policy issues, from health care to environmental regulation.

In the House of Representatives, debate over its version of the NCLB replacement was quite ideological, and culminated in the Republican majority narrowly passing a bill this summer with no Democratic support and 27 Republicans voting against it. But the Senate opened the door to the eventual compromise after Alexander struck a deal earlier this year with Senator Patty Murray (D–WA), the top Democrat on the Senate education panel, to move ahead only after their legislation had attracted bipartisan support. And in July, the Senate passed its version by a vote of 81 to 17, with huge majorities in both parties.

In taking his victory lap before last week’s vote by the conferees, Alexander took a swipe at his House colleagues. “It is a great privilege to serve in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate,” Alexander said. “But there is no need for us to have that privilege if all we do is announce our different opinions. We could do that at home, or on the radio, or the newspaper or the street corner. As members of Congress, after we have our say, our job is to get a result.”

University lobbyists are hoping that Alexander can also wave his magic wand to make government oversight of academic research less onerous. He has promised to incorporate pieces of a recent National Academies’ report that identified roadblocks facing academic researchers into legislation before Congress that is aimed more broadly at speeding up the process of finding medical cures. The House vehicle, called 21st Century Cures, received strong bipartisan support in July. Alexander, who chairs the Senate health and education panel, got the Academies’ panel to speed up its report by several months so that he could use some of its findings. However, he has yet to introduce his version.