After a winding debate and several near-death experiences, the first major rewrite of education law in more than a dozen years passed the Senate on Thursday, a bill that could be among the biggest accomplishments of the 114th Congress.
Sponsors of the measure, which was approved on a huge bipartisan vote and would affect 50 million children and over 98,000 public schools, hope for the president's signature by the end of the year after what is sure to be a heated debate with negotiators from the House, which has passed a more conservative bill.
The Senate legislation proposes major changes to President George W. Bush's signature No Child Left Behind Act, reworking strict benchmarks that schools have chafed against. It would require states to set up their own standards for student achievement, attendance, and graduation with several federal guidelines. Republicans have been anxious to return more control of schools to the states, particularly in recent years as they have watched the Education Department dictate the conditions that give states waivers from current law. In order to keep Democrats on board, the bill retains a number of funding and student-achievement priorities.
Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democratic author and negotiator of the bill, praised the measure and Education panel Chairman Lamar Alexander's work on it before passage Thursday.
"This process started when he and I agreed No Child Left Behind is badly broken and needs to be fixed," Murray said, adding that passage would "prove that Congress can break through gridlock and work together."
Alexander, for his part, said in an interview with National Journal Wednesday: "Americans really don't want Washington in charge of their schools—that's the bipartisan theme that runs through this bill."
The product is the furthest Congress has gone in reforming education law in years and is due in large part to Alexander and Murray, who by all accounts patiently negotiated and managed an issue in which everyone—everyone—has an opinion. Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, said trying to pass this bill was like playing at the University of Tennessee's 100,000-plus person stadium, where "everyone's an expert on football and they're ready to tell you what play to call." When comedian Louis C.K. dove into the Common Core fires last year on the Late Show with David Letterman, you knew a wonky debate in every school district had long gone national.
While the debate appeared to go smoothly from the vantage of C-SPAN, last-minute deal-making was rampant behind the scenes. In just over a week, the Senate voted on dozens of amendments and accepted dozens more, keeping the floor in a near constant state of activity. Alexander and Murray worked their way through hundreds of proposed changes and negotiated with their colleagues to keep their carefully crafted bill from being amended to death.
"The bill about tanked a couple of times this week," said Alexander, pointing to a dropped amendment concerning so-called sanctuary cities introduced by Sen. David Vitter, who will continue that fight in the Judiciary Committee. "That would have killed the bill, turned it into an immigration debate," Alexander added.
A debate determining federal funding allocations for elementary and secondary schools—a big issue—between Sens. Richard Burr and Chuck Schumer kept Alexander up Tuesday night. The debate was resolved "about 10 minutes" before a major scheduled procedural vote on Wednesday, according to Alexander.
"A lot of people pushing, pushing, pushing for their bill and a lot of people scrutinizing all the bills to see which ones they'd object to, and a lot of last-minute adjustments to try to clear those objections," was the way Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic member of the education committee, described the members' wrangling before Alexander announced that 42 amendments would be considered Wednesday.
ALEXANDER'S JUGGLING ACT
Managing a bill on the Senate floor isn't easy, but Republicans and Democrats each had their best negotiators at the helm. Several GOP senators said Alexander worked magic in cajoling members to rework or set aside controversial amendments that would have derailed the bill. "He has been masterful; I think he is one that is always trying to get to yes, to get to a positive solution," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who ultimately dropped an anti-bullying provision that she and Sen. Robert Casey had been arguing about. "Senator Casey had a view. I had a view. Senator Alexander encouraged us to be working together. And we did. It was hard and ultimately we both kind of pulled back off that," she said. (Casey said the choice was "particularly difficult" as he wanted to move forward, but added that he was happy his amendment expanding pre-kindergarten got a vote.)
The major reform effort wouldn't have even happened if Alexander stuck with a partisan draft he drew early this year. Murray objected and advised that they work together. To his credit, Alexander did. "You can see from the bill that Chairman Alexander opened with that he was extremely keen on having essentially a voucher system—'portability,' he called it," said Whitehouse. "And his willingness to dispense with that in order to get bipartisanship was a really, really strong sign, and I think the key that enabled everything else to proceed. In return for giving that up, I think he got a massive reduction in the federal footprint in the classroom."
Other members praised the two principals for delivering on promises to have a vote on the floor when their thorny disputes would have wrecked the early negotiations in committee. Controversial amendments by Sen. Al Franken, who for years had tried to push a bill banning LGBT discrimination at public schools, and Sen. Tim Scott, who wanted to amend the bill on vouchers for low-income students, both failed, but at least they got votes for their priorities and put members on the record. That was important to the managers, and Alexander's staff even cleared time for Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, after the Charleston shootings so he could hold his vote on his own time.
"I wasn't in a position to focus on my amendment, so he allowed me to delay to this week so I could just get a fresh start," Scott said. "The timing of the amendment was his doing and allowed me to focus on my home state and then move forward on something that's very important to me."
Murray had her hands full with Democrats who wanted votes on everything from preschool funding to graduation rates of foster children to gender-identity discrimination. She also helped broker a critical amendment on how schools assess their progress in educating disadvantaged kids. Backed by the White House, civil-rights groups demanded that such an amendment receive a floor vote. They believe the bill as written won't protect vulnerable students in good-to-middling schools, the ones that aren't already identified as low-performing. The amendment, which didn't pass but received a formidable 43 votes from Democrats, sought to single out all schools where poor or minority students aren't meeting certain academic expectations.
Murray did not achieve her objective of keeping the civil-rights community and the teachers' unions in line on the accountability amendment. While civil-rights and education-reform groups showered praise on the amendment, the National Education Association opposed it. "We do not agree with the proposal to automatically identify all schools for intervention who miss or narrowly miss subgroup targets," the NEA said in a letter to Congress, adding it to a "key vote" list by which they measure lawmakers.
While Democrats tend to be wary of bucking the NEA, the union's opposition to the accountability amendment didn't deter them this time around, perhaps because civil-rights groups were just as vociferous in their support for it. Sen. Christopher Coons assured members that the word "accountability" does not just refer to "high-stakes testing and unfunded mandates." It simply states that public schools should "work for every student, no matter where they are, where they come from, or how they learn."
Sen. Chris Murphy predicted the issue would definitely resurface. "There's a belief that accountability is going to be the primary subject of the conference—that the only way you get a presidential signature or House Republican support is through accountability being added back to the bill," Murphy said.
It was significant that Murray threw her weight behind the amendment, which was intended to demonstrate Democrats' unity in making sure vulnerable students don't fall through the cracks. Murray has a quiet power among Democrats that is helpful in the negotiation process. One lobbyist on the bill said a staffer confessed, "I just don't want Patty Murray to be mad at me."
THE NEXT STEP
The House would not have acted on education at all if it weren't for the Senate's brewing activity; the lower chamber passed a far more conservative bill that greatly reduces the federal role in schools without Democratic support last week. House GOP leaders were worried that conservatives would not have their say in an education debate owned solely by the Senate, so they figured out a way to pass a Republican bill over the objections of the Far Right, who don't want to see any federal involvement in schools. The sponsors have acknowledged it will have to move further to the center if any education bill is to be enacted this year.
Now, the parameters of a conference committee are set and Alexander's hopes are high. Whitehouse remembers that the chairman teared up when members thumped the tables as their bill sailed out of committee 22-0 in April, after months of nearly daily staff meetings between the offices of Alexander, Murray, and others. "To be able to do that in a committee that ranges from Bernie [Sanders] and Elizabeth Warren to Rand Paul and Tim Scott was a pretty touching moment," said Alexander. "It was a big step. But I'm saving my emotions for when the president actually signs the bill. We've got a ways to go before we get there."
The bill's passage shows again how Murray, who has recently untangled knotty disagreements over high-profile budget and human-trafficking issues, is perhaps the best Democratic negotiator on Capitol Hill. It also validates Alexander's decision to step down from a GOP leadership spot in 2012 to focus on crafting law.
"My job was basically to think up the political slogans each week, which I can do—I'm pretty good at it—but that's not as satisfying for me," Alexander said in the interview. "So I got out so I could do this."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
Alex Rogers covers Congress as a staff correspondent for National Journal. He previously worked as a political reporter at TIME. He is a native of Bethesda, Maryland and a graduate of Vanderbilt University.