Leadership Is important: Lamar Alexander and K -12 Education


When the 116th Congress adjourns, sometime before January 2021, Tennessee's 80-year-old senior senator, Lamar Alexander, will retire after three full terms. No one living today has already established more far-reaching influence on American K -12 education. As we wish him many glorious years of retirement, we do well to recognize that his legacy can last a lot longer. That's in no small part because his operate in the realm of education, as well as in others, followed a consistent and efficient vision of leadership. Lamar followed some simple suggest that he'd present in a book concerning the presidency by LBJ press secretary George Reedy: an innovator should \”do three things: 1) see a few urgent needs, 2) develop a strategy to meet simultaneously needs, and 3) persuade at least half the people that he's right.\”

Known to people who've worked with him simply as \”Lamar,\” the senator is renowned for his approachability and affability as well as his intellect, steadfast pursuit of the public interest because he construes it, and insistence on \”getting things done.\” Recently on Capitol Hill, he's stood among the few representatives of the older and more honorable era of constructive bipartisanship. In 2011, as Congress was growing more polarized and partisan, Lamar voluntarily exited the ranks of Senate Republican leadership, where he was a rising star, explaining that doing so \”will liberate me to spend more time working for results on the issues I care most about. I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues.\”


Instead of waiting to become an admiral, Lamar opted to captain a battleship. While serving on four Senate committees and 10 subcommittees, Lamar focused mainly on his chairmanship of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, referred to as HELP Committee. Throughout his four years for the reason that chair, the committee reported out some 45 separate bills which were enacted into law, an amazing accomplishment within this fraught era on Capitol Hill. Working effectively over the aisle with Senator Wa state of Washington, the committee's ranking Democrat, he advanced signal legislation on primary-secondary education, including 2021's Every Student Succeeds Act and 2021's reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. This past year, he and Murray decided on an invoice to simplify the notorious FAFSA undergraduate financial-aid application that 20 million families wrestle every year and to permanently fund historically Black universites and colleges. When i write, he's doing his darnedest to obtain those reforms across the congressional finish line.

This legislative activity, however, is only the latest, and maybe not the final, act in Lamar Alexander's half-century performance around the education stage.

Lamar was born in east Tennessee in 1940. Andrew Lamar Alexander, Lamar's father, was an elementary-school principal until, having to earn more to support his growing family, he began for Alcoa. Still enthusiastic about education, then he ran for that Maryville City School Board, which he served for 25 years, a number of that point as chair.

For 30 years, Lamar's mother, Flo Alexander, ran and taught in a preschool housed inside a converted garage behind their house. It was one of the few pre-K possibilities in Maryville at that time, ages before public-school kindergartens and Jump. As Lamar recalls, \”She had nowhere else to place me with the exception of 'Mrs. Alexander's Nursery School and Kindergarten' for five years, and so i had quite a head start.\” A head start indeed for any career that, while not based in education, has not been not even close to it. \”The point is,\” he states, \”I was taught and experienced the need for an excellent education.\”

That education later took him from Maryville High School to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he became an experienced student athlete, earned top grades, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1962. Even in college, he showed a willingness to swim upstream if the destination was important to him. He used his platform as editor of the student paper to oppose the university's racial segregation that most of his classmates supported. The New York Times once characterized him as \”quietly subversive.\”

Lamar went on to New York University School, where he took part in what the law states review and excelled academically. Afterwards, he served like a clerk for Judge John Minor Wisdom from the Fifth Circuit after which as legislative assistant to Tennessee GOP Senator Howard Baker, who became something of a mentor to Lamar.


In 1969, he joined the staff of the Nixon White House, where he and I first met, both still in our 20s. Lamar was an aide to Bryce Harlow, who headed congressional relations for Nixon, and that i was around the team led by White House Urban Affairs Adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Before long, though, Lamar and the new bride, Leslee Buhler (known to all as \”Honey\”), returned to Tennessee, where he practiced law and entered politics in the own right. After one false start, he won a bid for governor in 1978 in the age of 38. At that time, I was again employed by Pat Moynihan, by then a Democratic senator from Ny, but three years later we found ourselves en route to-of all places-Nashville, where I'd join the Vanderbilt faculty.

When Lamar became governor, the Volunteer State had the third-lowest average family income in the land. In his inaugural address, he declared, \”My goal would be to raise family incomes.\” He soon concluded that the surest way to boost his state's drab economic prospects was to revitalize its education system. With what became an oft-repeated slogan, he maintained that \”better schools mean better jobs for Tennesseans.\”

For a Republican governor, getting anything important done in purplish Tennessee meant joining forces with leaders of the Democratic legislative majority. So, in 1981, Lamar joined with those leaders to appoint a blue-ribbon commission that will explore ways of improving the state's schools and colleges. Their state bought enough Mac computers for every junior high school to include computer literacy to the curriculum. With occasional convening help from the Southern Regional Education Board, which for a time Lamar chaired, also, he connected regularly together with his counterparts in other states. Arkansas's Bill Clinton, South Carolina's Dick Riley, and Florida's Bob Graham, \”education governors\” all, have been elected within 24 hours as Lamar. He also started quietly going through the concept of merit purchase teachers. (From my Vanderbilt desk, I helped a bit with this part.)

At the time, Lamar viewed education as properly and entirely a state responsibility. He flew to Washington almost 30 years ago to offer President Taxation a \”grand swap,\” whereby Uncle Sam would shoulder the whole Medicaid burden while offloading all of K -12 education to the states. Reagan mentioned the concept in his 1982 State from the Union address, and, looking back, this type of sorting-out may have been great for all concerned, however it never happened.

That didn't deter Lamar from mounting their own state-specific reform proposal. Inside a January 1982 \”State of Education\” address, he put down a five-year Basic Skills First plan that included aspects of academic standards, tests, and accountability, all new to Tennessee and to the majority of the country. But this was just the beginning. Annually later, using the bipartisan commission report and the own reelection at hand, he presented the state's lawmakers and educators with a 10-point Better Schools Program.

That proposal was comprehensive, ambitious, expensive, and, in a single key factor, truly bold. It emphasized basic skills, computer literacy, stronger adult and vocational education, summer residential programs for gifted high schoolers, and a substantial purchase of university \”centers of excellence,\” however the heart of the plan was a cutting-edge and intricate merit-pay design called the Master Teacher Program. It was structured as a \”career ladder\” through which existing Tennessee teachers who made a decision to join-and all future teachers-could, on the basis of performance, ascend four amounts of professional licensure and stature, with considerably higher pay attached to each level. The program was ultimately enacted, becoming the very first statewide program in the country to, in Lamar's words, \”pay teachers more for teaching well.\” And since student performance as demonstrated by test scores was to be one of several factors in gauging teachers' readiness to ascend the ladder, it paved the way in which for which we now know as \”growth\” or \”value-added\” analysis of student, teacher, and school performance.

Getting the program adopted, however, involved a legendary legislative battle, since the Tennessee Education Association and it is parent, the National Education Association, hated the merit-pay area of the program, although it generally supported the rest, such as the additional education funding that would be supplied by the sales tax raise the governor had proposed.

Lamar Alexander is politically adroit as well as famously dogged in pursuit of purposes and plans he believes in. In his 1978 quest for the governor's office, he walked more than a thousand miles over the state. He proved tireless and imaginative in pressing for the Better Schools Program, both within Tennessee and beyond. For example, he and I took their state plane to Washington coupled with lunch with Albert Shanker, president from the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker was keener on finding ways to encourage and reward great teachers than were his Tennessee counterparts within the rival NEA. Shanker then invited Lamar to deal with the AFT's annual convention in La. (Flo Alexander said, \”Be careful, son.\”) Shanker, in introducing Lamar to union members, asked them, \”If you can have master plumbers, why don't you master teachers?\” Lamar's speech drew a standing ovation in the union delegates.


Lamar and his team spent many hours on public events, rallies, and lobbying legislators and people who might influence them. The majority of the Better Schools Program was broadly popular, despite its hefty cost, however the Master Teacher Program proved huge lift. The entire reform enterprise gained traction, however, in the coincidental fact that 1983 also saw the publication from the National Commission on Excellence in Education's landmark report A Nation at Risk, which drew attention to the dire state of K -12 education in the usa and heralded an \”imperative for educational reform\” in the subtitle. Hard as it is right now to recall such a time, it was additionally a period of bipartisan zeal for such reforms. The Clintons were overhauling education in Arkansas. Dick Riley and Jim Hunt used to do exactly the same in the Carolinas, as was Tom Kean in New Jersey. Like Lamar, Florida's Democratic governor Bob Graham was struggling-successfully, within the end-to produce a merit-pay plan for the Sunshine State, and though he and Lamar engaged in an amiable rivalry to see who might get there first, Graham found Nashville to induce a key state senator to vote for Lamar's plan. Reagan came too, visiting Knoxville's Farragut High School to voice his support for the Master Teacher Program and help legitimize the funding to pay for it.


After much more advocacy work, some compromising with the union, and summoning the legislature into special session, a mostly complete form of Alexander's Better Schools plan was enacted in February 1984, plus a one-cent increase in Tennessee's florida sales tax.

Lamar had much to be happy with but was already looking for more, and not simply in Tennessee. He helped lead the Southern Regional Education Board right into a pioneering use of data in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, to create state-level results, which had never been done before. He journeyed to Dallas to try and convince Ross Perot, who was simply deeply involved with Texas education reform, to join him inside a nationwide \”better schools effort.\” Perot demurred, telling Lamar that education reform was the \”meanest, bloodiest, and many difficult thing That i have ever done\” and that he wanted no more from it. As chairman of the National Governors Association, Lamar persuaded that group to invest a whole year on a single topic, namely better schools, which ushered in what was a five-year Here we are at Results project that enlisted governors from many states.

Along the way in which, Lamar developed two lasting convictions about K -12 education. Within Tennessee, Lamar came to realize that, regardless of what the state might do, schools wouldn't get far better unless their communities wanted them to, which frequently meant cultivating an appetite for change from outside the usual school establishment. This prompted him to travel their state to urge development of what became \”better schools task forces\” in each and every one of Tennessee's 127 districts. Lamar came to understand that public schools ultimately express the academic priorities, dreams, and capacities of their communities, and that, while state and federal governments-and other external forces-can influence, inspire, and assist in other ways, the quality of the college supply won't improve unless there's local demand for it.

Lamar expressed the second emerging conviction in 1986 when Education Week asked him what common thread ran through the seven task force reports the National Governors Association's \”time for results\” initiative had produced. \”The governors,\” he said

are ready for many old-fashioned horse-trading. We’ll regulate less, if schools and college districts will produce better results. The type of horse-trading we’re referring to can change dramatically the way most American schools work. First, the governors want to help establish clear goals and better report cards, methods to measure what students know and may do. Then, we’re ready to give up lots of state regulatory control-even to battle for alterations in what the law states to make that happen-if schools and college districts is going to be responsible for the outcomes.

These remarks reflected not just his single-minded focus on better results along with a solid grasp from the requirement for standards, assessments, and accountability, but additionally his belief in a reform strategy that provides freedom and adaptability in return for outcomes. Don't tell people how to run their schools; instead, insist that students find out more and contain the schools and those who run them accountable for providing outcomes.

As Lamar neared no more his second term as governor and prepared to move his family to Australia for what turned into a six-month sabbatical, I had been in Washington dealing with Bill Bennett in the U.S. Department of Education. It had been evident that NAEP needed an overhaul, if only to provide states the achievement data that governors now craved but could not enter reliable fashion from either SAT and ACT scores or even the minimum-competency tests their very own schools typically used. We understood that such overhaul would need bipartisan support; an offer in the Reagan administration alone would not fly having a Congress that had a solid Democratic majority in the House and would soon have one within the Senate.

Our strategy, then, ended up being to appoint a blue-ribbon \”study group,\” with distinguished members from both sides and in the education and ed-reform camps, and have it function-with foundation funding-largely outside the government itself. Lamar decided to chair the group, if we enlisted another person to do the heavy lifting. Fortunately, H. Thomas James, the just-retired president from the Spencer Foundation and former Stanford ed-school dean, was game to serve as vice chair and orchestrate the job.

We assembled an assorted number of educators, public servants (including Hillary Rodham Clinton, then first lady of Arkansas), business leaders, and academics. In March 1987-while Lamar was Down Under-the panel presented its report. Education Week termed it a plan for \”a radically more ambitious and dear form of the nation's 'report card' on student achievement.\” (It was Lamar who coined the nickname \”nation's report card\” for NAEP. He's an instinct for that kind of language that actually works very best in the general public square.)

It would be a watershed moment, not just for NAEP but in addition for America's capacity to monitor the performance of their K -12 system. As panel member Michael Kirst of Stanford said in a press conference introducing the report, \”What is being discussed today wouldn't even have been considered 20 years ago. Anyone who had proposed it might have been laughed from the room.\” Albert Shanker declared that strengthening NAEP was \”one of the most important things we can accomplish in this round\” of education reform.

The stickiest wicket was the recommendation that NAEP report \”achievement in every of the fifty states and the District of Columbia,\” which the panel termed \”the single most important change\” it was recommending. But the glacier of resistance to such reporting was already cracking, in no small part because Lamar and his fellow governors had applied heat to it. As a direct consequence of A Nation at Risk, the only state-level data offered by the Education Department came from Secretary Terrel H. Bell's so-called wall chart, which relied on unrepresentative SAT and ACT scores. Yet the Southern Regional Education Board's pilot program demonstrated that NAEP could serve this purpose. The National Governors Association's Time for Results project put into the demand. The Alexander-James panel pointed the way to a better supply. Lamar had played a vital role in virtually every phase of this shift.

He, however, was entering a few years in private life, writing, doing some college teaching, and raising his still-young family. He reemerged in 1988, as he became president from the University of Tennessee. Soon thereafter, he was drawn into the national K -12 reform effort.

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush convened an education \”summit\” in Charlottesville, Virginia, attended by 49 governors. The event produced a hugely ambitious set of national education goals to become achieved through the year 2000. Bush and his staff earnestly wanted a step-by-step plan to accompany these goals, however they weren't getting much action from the Education Department, then headed by Lauro Cavazos, a reticent university president who had been the first-ever cabinet member of Hispanic descent. So that they come up with President's Education Policy Advisory Committee, known as PEPAC, led by Alcoa CEO and future Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill and including New Jersey's Tom Kean, Xerox's David Kearns, and Lamar, among others (myself included) who the White House hoped would put some wind within the sails from the man who had declared himself America's first \”education president.\”

PEPAC did a number of that-one meeting also afforded Bush a degree of \”cover\” on the day bombs started falling on Baghdad as part of Operation Desert Storm-but after 1990, Cavazos had been shown the door. A week before Christmas, Bush nominated Lamar to consider Cavazos's place as secretary of education. Lamar soon began to formulate the experience plan Bush craved. I was part of the team Lamar assembled-along with Kearns, Bruno Manno, and Scott Hamilton-to brainstorm what became America 2000.

Bush welcomed that plan, and in April 1991, the White House released it. As reported in Education Week,

President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander last week unveiled an ambitious, unprecedented \”education strategy\” highlighted by proposals for \”a new generation of yankee schools\” and a national system of high-stakes achievement testing. \”For the sake of the future, of our children, and our nation, we should transform America's schools,\” Mr. Bush told business leaders, governors, lawmakers, and educators at the White House last Thursday. \”This isn't actually an announcement; it's a launch,\” Mr. Alexander told reporters. \”It isn't really a course; it's a crusade.\”

America 2000 began modern times of federal involvement with K -12 education reform. In contrast to a standard-issue government program, a lot of America 2000 was meant to occur in the private sector and voluntarily in hundreds of communities that will avail themselves of innovative school models and sundry other ideas and mechanisms for working toward the national education goals. Still, many observers found see America 2000 as the oncoming of ten years of heavy federal involvement, particularly in in conjunction with the National Education Goals Panel that emerged after Charlottesville, the revamped National Assessment, and a National Council on Education Standards and Testing that was congressionally chartered but largely appointed by Alexander. That decade would culminate in No Child Left out, followed by Race to the Top and the Common Core.


The Democratic Congress had little stomach for the parts of the Bush-Alexander plan that required legislation (including measures to enhance school choice and further expand NAEP into \”voluntary national tests\”). The chief branch-and a number of private donors and education entrepreneurs-did their finest, though, to advance the rest. Lamar's Education Department and Lynne Cheney's National Endowment for the Humanities made grants to organizations to develop national standards for core subjects. A lot of that actually work was overseen by Diane Ravitch, then assistant secretary of education. As deputy secretary of education, David Kearns raised private money for that New American Schools Development Corporation, which in turn seeded a number of start-from-scratch school designs. And Lamar barnstormed the nation with the president, appearing with both GOP and Democratic governors to advertise their \”crusade\” in a single state and community to another. Speaking in Columbus in November 1991, for example, Bush proudly declared that, seven months in, Ohio had just become the 25th state to \”have enlisted in the revolution to reinvent American education through the dawn of the new century.\”

Nor did their zeal for education reform hold on there. With Minnesota and California having passed charter-school laws and Wisconsin having launched a little voucher program in Milwaukee, school choice was gaining momentum, and Bush and Lamar sought to include a federal nudge. So, in June 1992-with his reelection campaign underway-the president sent Congress a Lamar-designed \”GI Bill for Children\” that will provide federal funds to states and communities that desired to make private-school scholarships (that's, vouchers) available to families. Lamar has revived, resubmitted, and promoted variations of the plan ever since, though resistance from teachers unions, their Democratic allies, and most a few suburban Republicans has to date blocked all such moves.

By then, however, he was also realizing how difficult it was-and remains today-to sustain the distinction between \”national\” and \”federal\” and also to maintain a workable barrier between voluntary and mandatory. He had long denounced the popularity toward a de facto \”national school board\” that will usurp state and local control, but that trend was acquiring momentum.

The essential distinction seemed clear enough to Lamar. Testifying towards the Senate in support of America 2000, he asserted that \”the federal role is to cause someone else to do it.\” Though Washington's role was \”limited,\” he wrote in the key America 2000 pamphlet, \”that role is going to be played vigorously. Washington might help by setting standards, highlighting examples, contributing some funds, providing flexibility in return for accountability, and pushing and prodding-then pushing and prodding more.\” Top government officials would also deploy the amount bully pulpits as best they could-ample precedent with this have been set during Bennett's time as education secretary and, in somewhat various ways, by Ted Bell and Ronald Reagan. But Washington wouldn't do the reforming itself. States and communities ultimately needed to want to do it and would inevitably do it their very own way, and some of them would do it poorly or not at all. That's American federalism, at least in K -12 education. Save for civil rights protections, the national government had no business telling people how to run their schools, much less trying to force these to.

As Lamar would put it in a speech decades later, \”A national concern is an urgent concern for the whole country. A federal issue is something Washington is incorporated in the best position to solve.\”

One can argue that, at the start, Alexander and Bush didn't perform a congrats of emphasizing that distinction. As critic David Whitman reconstructed those events in a 2021 Brookings paper, \”Lamar Alexander didn't quite summon the federal government towards the barricades. But he did state that America 2000 would require 'major alternation in our 110,000 public and private schools, alternation in every American community, change in every American home, change in our attitude about learning.' And he hit the direction to proselytize for his America 2000 plan.\”

Yet the road Lamar was attempting to draw began to get crossed once the National Council on Education Standards and Testing he had largely appointed-I would be a member-issued its report in January 1992, just eight months after America 2000 was unveiled. Besides recommending national academic standards and a complex move toward national testing-all of which Lamar welcomed-the council framed some \”school delivery\” standards, that is, standards for school inputs and practices. Though the panel had signaled that states should do this on their own as part of a comprehensive method of reform, Congress had other ideas. Encouraged by teachers unions and others within the school establishment, the Democratic leadership in the home, in the own very different version of America 2000 legislation, reframed the council's recommendations as federal \”opportunity to learn\” standards.

Lamar saw this move being an emerging \”national school board that may make day-to-day school decisions on curriculum, discipline, teacher training, textbooks, and classroom materials.\” This led him, in September 1992, to warn House minority leader Bob Michel he would urge Bush to veto the measure whether it retained these features. \”Such decisions,\” Lamar wrote, \”belong with communities, parents, teachers, and local school boards. A federal recipe book dictating how to operate a local school does not make schools better.\”

Weeks later, Bill Clinton beat Bush, and in early 1993, Lamar returned to Tennessee as his friend, former South Carolina governor Dick Riley, moved in to the secretary's office.

After that, the movement toward a \”national school board\” accelerated. Under Clinton, 1994's Goals 2000 and Improving America's Schools acts moved the us government forcefully toward requiring states to set academic standards, administer regular assessments to each child, and work toward uniform national goals. Those goals had burgeoned in the six that had been set in Charlottesville, one of these identified five core subjects, to eight goals and nine subjects. Although the detailed mandates of No Child Left Behind were still seven years later on, Lamar was alarmed by the direction Washington was taking. As he threw his hat in to the ring for that 1996 GOP presidential nomination, he vowed that, as president, he'd \”let parents and teachers make decisions about education. I will abolish the Department of Education after which create a GI Bill for children to ensure that parents won't be forced to send their children to some bad school.\”


He sought the presidency again in 2000 but bowed out after a poor showing in Iowa. Following a year in the Harvard Kennedy School (as \”professor of practice\”), Lamar returned to politics, this time in Tennessee, as well as in 2002, was handily elected to the U.S. Senate, taking the seat vacated by Fred Thompson.

Lamar's interest in education hadn't waned. He immediately sought (and also got) membership on the HELP Committee, where he'd soon chair the subcommittee on children and families, that is accountable for education legislation. His maiden speech on the Senate floor explained the American Background and Civics Education bill he was introducing. \”It 's time,\” he explained, \”that we put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools.\” He approvingly recalled a 1988 forum where Shanker answered the issue \”What may be the rationale for that public school?\” by saying, \”The public school was designed to teach immigrant children the three R's and what this means to become an American with the hope that they would then go home and teach their parents.\”

It was 1 . 5 years after 9/11, and Lamar's attract American exceptionalism and patriotism was timely and understandable. His bill, however, was no \”big government\” measure. Intended to piggyback on a George W. Bush initiative in the National Endowment for the Humanities, it would authorize competitive grants to educational institutions to function summer programs for history and civics teachers as well as for interested students. It was, quite simply, entirely consistent with Lamar's view that the federal role would be to encourage, facilitate, and inspire.

When he entered the Senate, No Child Left Behind have been law for barely a year. Asked about NCLB throughout an interview with this article, Lamar wasn't sure he would have voted for the bill had he experienced Congress then. Bush, he noted, had been a fine \”education governor\” in Texas but was perhaps trying too hard to become \”governor of the United States.\” He also acknowledged, however, the president might have talked him into supporting the bipartisan measure, despite its obvious \”national school board\” tendencies.

Meanwhile, there was other try to be carried out in the Senate, and not simply on education. An avid outdoorsman with a particular fondness for that national parks, Lamar gave considerable attention to environmental issues. He also did a faithful job of tending the needs and interests of the Volunteer State, which returned him to Congress with wide majorities in 2008 and again in 2021. In his spare time-and occasionally at political events-he literally piano, at which he's highly adept.

On the training front, Lamar persisted in trying to enact several versions of the \”GI Bill for children,\” sometimes dubbed \”Pell Grants for Kids.\” He had become an ardent champion of faculty choice and of empowering parents rather than government agencies and education bureaucracies to create decisions about children's schooling. He understood that, by attaching money to students, the initial GI Bill had done much to create American higher education both great and diverse while meeting the variegated needs of millions. He insisted that the similar strategy would do much for K -12 education and also the kids who relied on it. He'd also become a charter-school enthusiast and favored federal help to create more of them. (Certainly one of his final acts as education secretary was to write all the governors and urge them to check out what Minnesota had just done around the charter front.) He would be a major backer of NAEP and, more generally, of high-quality education statistics and research. And as the U.S. senator with the greatest experience of this realm within the most varied roles, and something who continued to write and speak on the topic, he was increasingly looked to by Americans across the political spectrum like a supply of wisdom about K -12 and higher education alike.

He seemed to be increasingly alarmed about Uncle Sam's heavy hand, evident within the NCLB waivers distributed by education secretary Margaret Spellings during George W. Bush's second term, the Obama-Duncan Race to the peak initiative in 2009, and the battles within the Duncan-boosted Common Core academic standards. Lamar saw the country as having crossed the road that separated federal support and encouragement from the \”national school board.\” Increasingly, the feds were placing restrictions on what states and districts could use their federal funding and what they must and may not do with their schools. Moreover, that funding had been deployed more and more forcefully-and in ever-larger sums-to induce specific changes in school practices and processes that someone in Washington thought desirable.

This wasn't just a problem of philosophy and principle for Chairman Alexander. It had been also a mounting source of upset and rancor among educators and state and local leaders round the country. The Obama-Duncan push to link teacher evaluations to student scores was feeding an anti-testing backlash among parents, too. NCLB was long overdue for reauthorization, and its prescriptiveness had arrived at rankle education leaders and lots of local and state officials. Although it had done an excellent job of exposing achievement gaps, its goals and timetables were jokes; its labeling of thousands of well-regarded schools as \”in need of improvement\” upset parents, teachers, and realtors alike; its choice provisions weren't working; and it is rigid sequence of interventions in troubled schools was not yielding the transformations it was meant to force. Race to the Top was winding down, and also the Common Core, which in fact had begun like a privately funded and voluntary initiative undertaken by governors and education chiefs, became politicized after Secretary Duncan (essentially) made Race to the peak funding contingent on states embracing it. This converted the most popular Core from something which states had been free to embrace or reject into something they'd be financially punished for spurning.

It was time, Lamar realized, to push the pendulum back toward state and local control of K -12 schooling. But, at that time, this wasn't just a conservative view. In 2012, when Lamar was the ranking Republican on the HELP committee led by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, the committee reported out a reauthorization from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would return some authority to the states. But that measure failed and, by February 2021, once the new 113th Congress held its first hearing around the reauthorization of NCLB, discontent was widespread.

In his opening statement at the hearing, Lamar-as he has often done-framed the issue in folksy terms:

[T]he Secretary's using of this waiver authority has gone much broader than that. It's be a sort of Washington version of that old game children played called Mother, May I? . . . You say, ''Mother, May I?'' and then the mother says, ''You may do thus and thus,'' and when you need to do what's right, you get to do it, and when you do not get to get it done, you're out of the game. Making this an example where the State might say, ''Mother, may I create a teacher evaluation system,'' and instead of saying yes or no, the Secretary says, ''You may, as long as you wash both hands and practice the piano and research your options and clean up the kitchen and rake the yard.'' And you might say, ''Well, Mother, that's not things i inspired to do,'' and Mother would say, ''Well, but that is what you need to do if you want to get out there and play.'' So what happens is that this simple waiver authority has turned into a conditional waiver, with the Secretary having more authority to create decisions that, in my view, should be made locally by State and local governments.

NCLB reauthorization didn't pull through that divided Congress, either, but two years later, the GOP had a Senate majority, and Lamar was chairman from the HELP Committee. Within days of the 2021 election, his team was readying an invoice to revamp ESEA to come back authority to convey and native control. By now, there was widespread support for this type of move ahead each side from the aisle, and Lamar and his staff were soon engaged in lengthy negotiations with committee Democrats, led by Senator Murray. In the end, they reached a rare outcome for the modern Congress: a bipartisan compromise. Democrats as well as their supporters insisted on retaining-indeed, augmenting-the many \”transparency\” requirements of NCLB, but Republicans restored to states just about all decisions about evaluating school performance and determining what, contrary, to complete in instances where it was weak.

The bill passed, and in December 2021, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law, calling its passage a \”Christmas miracle.\” As Education Week reported it, \”President Barack Obama reversed course with the stroke of the pen Thursday, putting states and districts back at the wheel with regards to teacher evaluation, standards, school turnarounds, and accountability, through a new iteration of the five-decade old Elementary and Secondary Education Act.\”


From Lamar's standpoint, the slide toward a \”national school board\” had been arrested, indeed substantially reversed. And for this accomplishment he was praised from many directions. The Wall Street Journal termed it \”the largest devolution of federal control towards the states in a quarter-century.\” The nation's Governors Association conferred on Lamar its first James Madison Award, in recognition of labor that \”epitomizes the kind of cooperative federalism the founding fathers envisioned and governors expect,\” within the words of association chair and Utah governor Gary Herbert. More surprisingly, the nation's Education Association, which 2 decades earlier had condemned Governor Alexander's Master Teacher Program, conferred on him and Senator Murray its 2021 Friend of Education Award. NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia stated that \”they were instrumental not just in the passing of the critical K -12 federal education law, however they listened, they set a dark tone of bipartisan cooperation, and they got the task done on behalf of the nation's students and educators.\”

Lamar didn't stop there. The HELP Committee under his leadership churned out a large number of bills that made it into law, including a major overhaul of federal support for vocational education. In 2021, he undertook a heroic-though to date unsuccessful-effort to revamp and renew the larger Education Act. In 2021, with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the land, he became more engaged than ever within the health side from the committee's portfolio.


Over the decades, Lamar has often quoted a maxim of the late Alex Haley, author of Roots: \”Find the good and praise it.\” In reflecting on the course of K -12 education in the United States over his decades of involvement by using it, Lamar has a tendency to begin to see the good and celebrate it. Yet, also, he recognizes how limited are the gains the nation makes to date, how implacable is the resistance to change, and how complacent (or oblivious) are many communities toward shortcomings within their schools and their children's achievement. He's keenly aware of the limits on which Washington can-and should-do to rectify this, the more so at a time of intense partisanship. But no change occurs without foresight, leadership and stick -to-it-iveness, whether in the federal, state, community, or school level. So that as governor, leader of governors, university president, education secretary, senator, and skilled navigator with the shoals of power, Lamar Alexander has achieved much of lasting worth.

See several urgent needs and create a strategy to meet each of them. Then stick to it until at least half the people agree that it's right. Not necessarily a bad meaning of leadership. And a noteworthy, durable legacy for a great American education reformer.

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