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Patty Murray At Center Of Debate Over Future Of No Child Left Behind Act

J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo
FILE - Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in July 2014.

After years of false starts, an effort to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act appears to be picking up steam in Congress, and Washington state's senior U.S. Senator could play a key role in the debate.

Sen. Patty Murray is the top Democrat on the Senate committee that will oversee the overhaul of the outdated 2001 law that mandated schools to, among other things, ensure every single kid nationwide could pass a standardized test by last year. (That, of course, didn't happen.) 

But until the GOP took control of the Senate this year, efforts to rewrite the law had made little progress in a divided Congress. Now Republicans are eager to dial down the feds' role in education, even floating the idea of dropping NCLB's requirement that students take standardized tests every year.

That's where Murray could play a key role. Known as a consensus-builder in the Senate, the former preschool teacher and school board member will be critical both in defending several Obama administration priorities and in winning the Democratic votes Senate Republicans would likely need to pass a rewrite out of the chamber.

"Ultimately, this will be a real challenge to get this bill passed if Sen. Murray is not on board," said Michael Brickman, national policy director for the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education think-tank.

Flashpoint: Should States Test Kids Every Year?

Credit Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo
AP Photo
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

That means it won't be easy for Republicans — led by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. — to drop the annual testing requirement. Alexander's early "working drafts" offer two options: leave the current testing requirements largely in place, or drop the annual testing mandate and let allow states to set their own testing policies.

For her part, Murray has echoed the Obama administration's call to stop giving "redundant and unnecessary tests," but to continue to require schools to give standardized exams each year.

"If we don’t have ways to measure students’ progress, and if we don’t hold states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities," Murray said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "These are the students who, too often, fall through the cracks."

'The Department Has Become, In Effect, A National School Board'

Testing isn't the only element of the NCLB up for debate.

In a wide-ranging speech Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged Congress not to "turn back the clock" to a pre-NCLB era when "in too many places, the buck stopped nowhere for student learning."

Brickman says Republicans, Alexander included, have been aiming for years to curtail the Department of Education's authority over school policy.

"The Department has become, in effect, a national school board," Alexander said in a speech this week.

But Duncan defended policies the administration pushed in the absence of Congressional action that promoted the adoption of new teacher evaluations and academic standards.

"This country can’t afford to replace 'the fierce urgency of now' with the soft bigotry of 'it’s somehow optional,'" Duncan said.

Murray Brings Home State's Waiver Backstory Front And Center

As more and more schools fell short of NCLB's requirement that they be on-track to have 100 percent of students pass state tests, federal education officials began giving individual states waivers from the law's most stringent consequences in 2012.

Washington was one of more than 40 states to receive that waiver. But one of the conditions of the waiver was that standardized test scores become a required element in every teacher's evaluation — a condition state lawmakers didn't fulfill.

As a result, Washington became the first state to lose its NCLB waiver last April.

"Most of the schools in my home state are now categorized as ‘failing,’" Murray said in her speech.

In a blog post, Bellwether Education Partners senior policy analyst Anne Hyslop noted the irony in Murray's defense of the federal role in education "even though her own state lost its waiver from NCLB because of it."

"Her remarks may not have been as forceful as the secretary’s [Duncan's]," Hyslop added, "but that only proves her value in the coming negotiations — as one that could bring the two sides closer together."

Alexander has scheduled the first committee hearings on an NCLB rewrite for next week. He says he wants the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to finish its work during "the first couple months of this year."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.