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Federal Flash: Senator Alexander Retirement and School Safety Final Report

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December 20, 2018 03:14 pm

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Federal K-12 policy had been a bit slow over the past few weeks, but in this last week before many take off for the holiday, there have been some important developments. Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, announced he will not be seeking reelection. Also, the Trump administration’s commission on school safety released its final report.

Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions – also known as the HELP Committee, announced he will not seek reelection in 2020.

Senator Alexander has dedicated much of his long career in public service to education. As governor of Tennessee, he led the state to become the first in the nation to base teacher pay on teacher performance. He then became president of the University of Tennessee before being appointed to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education under the late President George H.W. Bush. Alexander was elected to the senate in 2002 and became chairman of the HELP Committee in 2015. Under his leadership, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Chairman Alexander is known as a serious bipartisan legislator. So much so, that he stepped down from his leadership position in the Senate back in 2011 so he could concentrate more on legislating. ESSA was undoubtedly one of Alexander’s most important legislative accomplishments – the result of many hours of work and bipartisan compromise, in particular with his counterpart on the education committee, Senator Patty Murray. In the words of President Obama, it was a Christmas miracle. In Chairman Alexander’s remaining two years in the senate, all eyes are on the possibility of another miracle – the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. There are a ton of issues to be dealt with: student loans, for-profit colleges, college costs, high remediation rates…the list goes on and the clock is ticking. We’ll keep you posted.

Also this week, the Federal Commission on School Safety released its final report. President Trump established the four-member commission after the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, which was tasked with studying and recommending ways to make our nation’s schools more secure.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos chaired the commission and said, “through the Commission’s work, it has become even clearer there is no single policy that will make our schools safer. What will work for schools in Montana will be different than what will work for schools in Manhattan.”

Critics argue that the nearly 200 page report leaves the gun lobby more secure than the nation’s classrooms. Senator Murray, the leading democrat on the Senate education committee, said, “the gun industry itself could not have written a more blatant and obvious distraction from the real problem gun violence poses to students across our country.”

One of the most contentious items in the report is its recommendation to rescind guidance issued under the Obama administration to address discriminatory discipline practices. The report argues that the Obama guidance, “creates a chilling effect on classroom teachers’ and administrators’ use of discipline by improperly imposing…a forceful federal role in what is inherently a local issue.”

The report did not include a clear explanation for how rescinding the guidance would effectively reduce discriminatory discipline practices. In fact, while the report responded to some of the arguments in favor of maintaining the guidance, it failed to make any mention of a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, which found that “black students, boys, and those with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined regardless of type of discipline, level of school poverty, or type of school.”

The GAO report notes that African American students represent less than 16 percent of public school students, but account for 39 percent of students suspended from school – an overrepresentation of 23 percentage points.

The issue of discriminatory school discipline practices is likely to be a subject of oversight hearings in the House of Representatives in the New Year.

That’s all for now, and for the year. We’ll see you on our next episode of Federal Flash in 2019!

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the December 20 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s five-minute (or less!) video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The video version is embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email at alliance@all4ed.org.

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