Senator Alexander’s Misleading Victory Lap

In this remarkable age of extreme partisanship, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander can rightly take much of the credit for America’s new K-12 education law, passed in both houses with large bipartisan margins and enthusiastically signed by President Obama last week. Nevertheless, the story he’s telling is shamefully misleading. He begins an  op-ed in the Tennessean with the outlandish claim that he ran for reelection last year on a promise to “repeal the federal Common Core mandate and reverse the trend toward a national school board.” Sorry, Senator, but there never was a Common Core mandate so your new law can’t repeal what didn’t exist. There was an incentive to adopt “college- and career-ready” standards in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program and some conservative  pundits and politicians viewed this incentive as “coercive.” But it wasn’t a mandate. It was voluntary and 46 states and D.C. leaped at the opportunity to compete for those dollars by adopting higher standards. Ironically, the new law that the senator from Tennessee is so proud of, the Every Student Succeeds Act, now mandates the very thing he rails against. Under the new law, every state must adopt “college- and career-ready” standards. Thus, the new law all but guarantees that Common Core State Standards—or a reasonable imitation under a different name—will likely remain in place in most states. The last half of Senator Alexander’s op-ed is especially deceitful. He insists that in the 1980s and 1990s Tennessee was “doing pretty well without Washington’s supervision.” I suppose that’s true if performing  consistently below the national average is good enough, according to a 1999 NAEP report. Tennessee also entered the new century with some of the  lowest graduation rates in the country but closed out the first decade with some of the highest. That’s certainly good news, until you point out that for much of the decade, Tennessee set the bar on state tests at the  lowest levels in the country—dumbing down their standards to avoid sanctions under No Child Left Behind. But here’s the biggest whopper of all. Sen. Alexander proudly suggests that Tennessee’s  nation-leading growth on 2013 NAEP scores happened because Govs. Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam pushed academic standards higher and improved teacher evaluation. He never mentions the fact that Tennessee implemented Common Core even before the Race to the Top program started, or that both policies were faithfully implemented with the support of its $500 million Race to the Top grant won in 2010. The fact is, if not for the “national school board” Sen. Alexander relentlessly mocks, Tennessee would still be deluding itself into thinking that its schools and students are high performing. The Senator certainly deserves his victory lap for getting the new law over the finish line, but the American people deserve the truth. Race to the Top drove needed change in American education and nowhere more so than in Senator Alexander’s own state.  
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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