Kelly Ayotte

"No Child Left Behind" Law Update - Jul. 21, 2015

Kelly Ayotte
July 21, 2015— Washington, D.C.
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Mr. President, I come to the floor this morning to speak about the bill that we have pending on the floor, a law that is long past due for reexamination and reauthorization, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

This law was last updated in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act. Fourteen years is far too long to go without updating the primary law focused on an issue that is so important to the future of our country, ensuring that children in New Hampshire and across this country receive a high-quality education.

I am the mother of a 7-year-old and 10-year-old, and this could not be a more important issue to me and to, I know, other mothers across the country. Many parents, teachers, and school leaders in New Hampshire have expressed to me their concerns about No Child Left Behind, and so it is past time for us to update and improve this law.

I believe education decisions are best made locally, including decisions about school curriculum and how education dollars are spent. While its goals of accountability were very important and laudable, No Child Left Behind, unfortunately, imposed a one-size-fits-all regime on every school in every State in this country.

No Child Left Behind imposed unworkable mandates and unreasonable goals that led many schools in America to be labeled as failing, with no reasonable way to get off the failing list. Congress's inaction, up to this point has led to a system where the Federal Secretary of Education can dictate to States what priorities they must set in order to receive a conditional waiver from parts of this law.

This Senate's bipartisan education reform bill, the Every Child Achieves Act that is on the floor right now, would return decision making on education to where it belongs, back to States, local schools, teachers, and parents.

I wish to thank Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray of the HELP Committee for conducting an open debate on this critically important legislation and working together. I am encouraged that Republicans and Democrats worked together and overcame disagreements to move this important legislation forward. That is how the Senate should work and that is what the American people deserve from their elected representatives.

Like all Granite Staters, I want children in our State and across our country to have even better opportunities than our generation has had, and the foundation for future success starts with a quality education. Every parent knows that, and that is why this is such an important topic that we have been debating on this floor.

Granite Staters have shared with me some of the biggest challenges facing our students because of No Child Left Behind, and the Every Child Achieves Act seeks to address them. For example, as I mentioned, No Child Left Behind created a one-size-fits-all system that ignored differences between different parts of the country and primarily used tests as the measure of accountability at the expense of other important measures of success, like student progress, attendance and graduation rates, parent and teacher engagement, among others.

We have seen what happened under this law over the last decade. Schools are over-testing and educators are teaching for the test as opposed to making sure that our children really learn the topic matter. That's not how we should be educating our young people. We want to make sure they have a firm understanding of the concepts they are learning in school.

The Every Child Achieves Act restores these powers to the States. It makes sure States have the flexibility they need to develop their own ways to test and measure accountability. I know from our local communities and our local school boards that they are focused every single day in their own communities on making sure their communities are delivering the best quality education and understand the geography and the different challenges facing their communities, and it is important we restore that decision making to them.

This bill will let States decide how to measure student achievement and school success within their own borders. What might be right and work for North Dakota may not be the right approach for a State like New Hampshire, and so this allows each State and locality to engage on what is best for the State.

The Every Child Achieves Act also prohibits Washington from mandating or incentivizing any States to adopt any particular curriculum standards, such as common core. This is an issue many of my constituents have raised with me, and so this bill will, again, restore this decision making to the States and the parents and teachers. In doing so, this bill reaffirms that it should be the State, not the Federal Government, that determines education standards. Each State is different and uniquely situated to determine the curriculum and accountability measures that best fit the needs of their students without interference from Washington. We don't need the Washington-knows-best attitude. We know the best decisions are made locally.

This bill includes additional reforms that will help strengthen our education system and better prepare our young people to join the rapidly changing and competitive global 21st century workforce. It ensures parents can still have access to data about their State, district, and school's education performance so they can make informed decisions about their child's education. It increases support for high-quality charter schools, giving parents greater choice to determine the best learning environment for their children. It creates State-based need assessments to help identify low-performing schools and allows States, not the Federal Government, to determine how to best help low-performing schools.

All of these reforms are much needed, commonsense steps toward reforming and improving our education system, and I believe more can be done to specifically help students in New Hampshire. That is why I appreciate the willingness of Senators Alexander and Murray to work with me to allow votes on several bipartisan amendments that I have included in this bill, and I know this has been a very open process. This is how the Senate should operate.

I was able to work across the aisle on a number of amendments that addressed New Hampshire's priorities. The first of those is strengthening our mental health first aid training to ensure that school personnel have the critical mental health first aid training they need to improve the safety and well-being of students in schools in New Hampshire and across the country. This is something I have heard so much about from our local communities. That is why I was pleased to see the Senate adopted my amendment on mental health awareness training programs yesterday.

I wish to thank Senator Blumenthal for working with me to include this important amendment that will help school personnel safely address mental health issues earlier, before they reach a crisis stage.

I know an issue I have heard so much about in New Hampshire about that 21st century workforce is STEM education. When it comes to developing the high-skilled workers we need to compete, we must ensure that we have better STEM education in our schools for that next generation of American innovators. Promoting education initiatives and job training in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is critical to ensuring that we stay on the cutting edge and that we ensure that our children have the skills they need to get those good-paying jobs when they leave high school, postsecondary education, and beyond with their college education.

Over the last few years, an effort to increase students' proficiency and close the education gap between the United States and other countries has seen a renewed focus on STEM, and we have seen it in New Hampshire as well. One of the issues I have seen a focus on which I think is very important is including more women and girls in STEM education.

At the college level, women are currently studying in the STEM fields at a lower rate than men, and many women who do earn STEM degrees actually end up working in other fields. Despite that fact, we are expected to see a 20-percent increase in STEM jobs we are going to need to build that workforce. Yet women only make up 25 percent of the STEM workforce. So we have a long way to go, and that is one of the reasons I worked with Senator Gillibrand on a measure to broaden student access to mentorship, tutoring, and afterschool activities to encourage interest in and develop in STEM fields. Our amendment was focused on encouraging States to explore ways to increase participation in STEM programs by underrepresented groups, including girls, minority students, English learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students, so we can have a broad array of our students ready to take on those jobs and the workforce we need to grow our economy.

Another area where we need to grow the economy in our country is in manufacturing. We are seeing the beginnings of a manufacturing renaissance. Last week, I was visiting a company in New Hampshire called Rapid Manufacturing in Nashua, NH. They have a partnership with a local community college to train their workforce and to bring them right from the community college into Rapid Manufacturing. They have more positions than they can fill right now. In fact, they are going into the middle schools and high schools to get kids excited about career and technical education. We really need this, and the jobs are there. I hear this from so many of our employers.

I was glad to work across the aisle on an important amendment that did not get included but got quite a bit of support from Senator Kaine and gained support from Senators Portman, Capito, Graham, Boxer, Whitehouse, Casey, and Warner, and I wish to thank them.

This would create a pilot program in our middle schools to get our children excited about career and technical education for those advanced manufacturing jobs where we need to grow our workforce. While I am disappointed this amendment was not included on this bill, I am encouraged that Senator Alexander said he would be open to working with us on this effort as a potential when we reauthorize the Perkins Act in the future, which will deal with higher education.

In addition to the issues we see with workforce, STEM, and manufacturing, unfortunately, an issue too many of our States are dealing with--and New Hampshire has been hit hard--is substance abuse. As part of my ongoing efforts to combat the heroin and prescription addiction crisis in New Hampshire, I worked with Senator Manchin to put forth two measures to better assist students dealing with substance abuse issues at home. Our amendment would encourage local education decision makers to provide professional development, training, and technical assistance to schools and communities that are affected by the crisis of addiction, and this is something I know we are also going to address in an amendment I am supporting later today.

New Hampshire has been a leader in what is called competency-based education. What that means is actually assessing students on measures other than tests. That is actually measuring students on innovative assessments and measures of accountability; for example, when students actually go out into their community and have real hands-on experience based on the career they are focusing on. New Hampshire has been the first State in the Nation to actually receive a grant on competency-based education.

I was very glad to work with Senator King to improve a section of this bill that would allow a greater ability for States to participate in alternative assessment pilot programs like we have seen in New Hampshire. This is, again, about transferring control from Washington of how we assess how our students are doing and how we ensure accountability in our schools to innovative local ideas like what we have seen in New Hampshire when it comes to competency-based education.

So I want to thank Senator King for working with me on that.

There are a number of other amendments for which I thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and which I think are very important in this bill. I was very glad to work on them with my colleagues. They include working with Senator Booker on assisting homeless and foster youth; working with Senator Warner on including language ensuring better transitions from school to the workplace; and working with Senator Bennet on supporting the use of shared service alliances for early childhood education programs. For example, in New Hampshire we have the Seacoast Early Learning Alliance. I was very glad to work with Senator Bennet on that amendment. Also, improving oversight of the Early Learning Alignment and Improvement Grants Program--oversight of our programs is critical. I was glad to work with Senator Warner on oversight of these programs and, finally, work with Senator Isakson again on the local control piece, and that is putting the decision making back with the parents. This amendment will better inform parents about their rights when it comes to mandatory assessments and the qualifications of their classroom teachers. I think we need to inform parents so that they can make the best decisions for their children.

I am confident that the bipartisan, commonsense reforms in the Every Child Achieves Act will improve our education system and certainly make sure that the decision making rests where it should--with parents, teachers, local school boards, and our States, rather than the Washington one-size-fits-all approach we have seen too often. In turn, it will help prepare students in New Hampshire and across our country for good careers and a brighter future. All of us here want to ensure that our children will have better opportunities than we have had in this great country, and we certainly owe that to our children. I am very glad we had this important debate on the floor.

Again, I thank Senator Alexander and Senator Murray for working across the aisle on this important bill.

Thank you, Mr. President.

I yield the floor.