How Sens. Alexander and Murray's bipartisan leadership paved the way for landmark ESSA law

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which updated the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, most recently known as No Child Left Behind. ESSA includes new accountability measures that take into account the specific needs for Latino and English learner students. Among other measures, the law mandates that the progress of Latino and English learner students be measured and reported annually, and that action be taken when students are not succeeding academically. These are important and encouraging steps for the five million English learners who, for far too long, had been overlooked by outdated education policies.

The bipartisan leadership of Senators Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander was critical to getting the law passed. Senator Murray, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), was honored alongside HELP Chairman Alexander at the 2016 NCLR Capital Awards for their instrumental roles in the passage of ESSA. Senator Murray had this to say about the landmark legislation:

NCLR: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was last reauthorized as No Child Left Behind. What made updating ESEA so difficult and how did you overcome these obstacles?

From the outset, Chairman Alexander and I knew we were not going to agree on everything. But instead of going down a partisan path and letting politics get in the way, we agreed to work together to find common ground. I give Lamar a lot of credit for listening to me and starting on a bipartisan product last year.

NCLR: What contributed to the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act? Bipartisan compromise clearly played a role, but what other factors do you believe were also influential?

I think both parties understood what so many families, communities, and other elected officials understand—No Child Left Behind was broken and needed to be fixed. I’m glad that Chairman Alexander, Chairman Kline, and Ranking Member Bobby Scott and I were able to set aside partisanship, find common ground, and get this law passed.

NCLR: ESSA includes new provisions for English learner students. How do you hope the law will help this growing population?

Every student in our country should have access to a quality education, regardless of where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make. Today, one in every 10 students is an English learner, and the percentage is growing every year. These students face unique challenges learning English and succeeding in school. That’s why we must hold states and school districts accountable for addressing their needs and providing effective English language programs. The new law recognizes that English proficiency and academic achievement are inextricably tied, and provides more flexibility for states to create Title I accountability systems that will shine a spotlight on both growth in English proficiency (instead of just meeting a proficiency bar) and academic results for English learners, instead of requiring a separate system under Title III. In addition, the law seeks to provide valuable information about certain groups of English learners—such as English learners with a disability and long-term English learners—so that states and school districts can address their unique needs.

NCLR: What has changed in education policy over the course of your career? 

Since I was elected to the Senate in 1992, we have seen several changes in K–12 policy and we continue to learn what works best in the classroom and for students. What hasn’t changed is that students still need elected leaders in Congress who will give them a voice at the table and fight on their behalf. We still need to invest in education, because it is one of the most important things we can do to help students succeed and our country succeed. And, while policies may have changed, I’m heartened that today our nation’s core belief still holds true that every student in our country should have the chance to learn, grow, and thrive in the classroom.