Student Success Act--Conference Report--Continued --

Floor Speech

Date: Dec. 8, 2015
Location: Washington D.C.


Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I would like to take a few moments this afternoon to talk about where we are at the end of this year, 2015. There has been a lot of talk about wrap-up, a lot of talk about how we knitted together the outstanding issues before us as a Congress. There is much yet to be done, but I do think it is significant to recognize that there has been good work, there has been substantial and substantive work that has come out of the U.S. Senate this year as the Republicans have led the Senate in the majority.

As we think back at year-end on a series of accomplishments, I think it is important to recognize that the business of the Congress has been productive. Sometimes we get so busy around here that we don't stop to even recall what we did yesterday, much less last week or the week before.

Today we have had an opportunity to almost bring to a close the education reform measure that Senator Alexander from Tennessee and Senator Murray from Washington have been working so hard on over this past year. As a member of the HELP Committee, I have been very pleased to work with them as we have attempted to advance meaningful and long-overdue education reforms.

Before I speak specifically to the Every Student Succeeds Act, I would like to rattle off a few of the measures.

Of course we recognize that it was just last week that the highway reauthorization bill moved successfully not only through the Senate but through the House, through the full bodies ready to be signed into law by the President. The 5-year highway reauthorization bill is the longest highway reauthorization bill we have seen in 17 years. That is significant. For a State such as mine that is looking for some level of certainty for projects around the State, that is considerable, and that is a good accomplishment to look back to as a marker of success.

The vote we had last week would roll back some of the many harmful effects of the Affordable Care Act--the Not-So-Affordable Care Act, as I mentioned on the floor last week, saying that for far too many Alaskans, the Affordable Care Act was simply not affordable.

There have been other measures we can look to and acknowledge that we are doing the work of the Congress--moving forward the national defense authorization bill, which the President chose not to deal with the first time around but signed it the second time around.

We were able to move forward several measures related to the regulatory environment we are dealing with, whether it was the Clean Power Plan or the waters of the United States, being able to push back on those very burdensome regulations that I think we recognized--the goals for clean air and clean water are something we all want. We need to make sure that we move in this direction in a way that doesn't burden or weigh down our economy.

The first appropriations stand-alone bill that we have seen move through the Senate in 5 years when we advanced the MILCON appropriations measure--that was also significant.

The committees have been doing great work. In our energy committee, we moved forward an energy reform bill that would help to modernize our energy grid, access to all areas of energy, not only by night but our renewable resources as well. That was an effort which was very bipartisan and enjoyed good, strong support within the committee. We moved it out 18 to 4 and hope to have an energy reform bill before the Senate for consideration early in this next calendar year. We haven't seen energy modernization or an energy reform bill since 2007. Again, it is long overdue but is now teed up.

We have a sportsmen's bill that we moved through committee. The Environment and Public Works Committee is working to advance their portion of those very significant measures that will allow for greater access to our sports men and women and our families who seek to recreate on our public lands.

These are good things that we are seeing coming out of committees and coming to the floor and moving forward. This is a level of governance that has been good for the body and, even better, will be good for the country.

Mr. President, I would like to speak very briefly about the Every Student Succeeds Act. I know several of my colleagues have come down to the floor. Just a couple minutes ago, the Senator from Wyoming came to talk about the good things we have seen in this education reform bill and celebrate how it ends the national school board by putting more control of our schools in our States' and locals' hands. I think that is worthy of note. For the schools, administrators, teachers, and the parents, that is worthy of celebration.

I am more than pleased that the Every Student Succeeds Act will finally allow our States to judge our schools by more than just the test results and allow our teachers to do what they want to do to teach our kids and engage them in the art and love of learning and not just prepare for tests. We all know our children are more than what can be described in some of these fill-in-the-bubble exercise tests, and our teachers are certainly more than robots that stand in front of a class and follow a script that has been orchestrated from elsewhere.

I tell many Alaskans that I got my political start, if you will, as the president of my son's PTA, our parent teacher association in our local neighborhood school. I came to understand firsthand and in a very upfront and personal way what No Child Left Behind meant not only for my son's school but for the schools across Alaska, an area where you have a lot of geography and not a lot of numbers in terms of population.

NCLB did not work for us as a very rural State. The one-size-fits-all did not work. My son's public school was deemed a failing school in the first year that adequate yearly progress was the standard of measurement. We were dubbed a failing school because we had one subcategory of students where the numbers were so small, but we didn't have enough students show up to take the test on that day. So we all know there were 31 different ways to fail AYP, and little Government Hill Elementary in Anchorage, AK, failed that first year. That is tough as a neighborhood. They were saying: What is wrong with our school? What is wrong with our neighborhood?

Really, there was nothing wrong with our school. There was nothing wrong with our neighborhood. What we had was a directive that came out of Washington, DC--some 4,000 miles away--and it didn't work for us.

I am more than pleased to join with superintendents, principals, and school board members who celebrate Federal bureaucrats being prohibited from dictating standards, assessments, and school ability plans. No more Federal control. No more waivers with strings. No more one-size-fits-all education mandates that never ever fit us in Alaska.

I also place a high value on the fact that this bill recognizes the rights of our American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian peoples throughout the country. It makes sure they have a greater say in how public schools will serve their children. Also, this bill will support the revitalization of Native languages by supporting Native language immersion schools. This has always been one of my priorities, and I am pleased we see this in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

I am grateful for the support of colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Senator Boxer worked with me on this to make sure we maintained Federal support for afterschool programs that allow parents to remain at work if they need to after the school day ends, knowing their children are going to be safe and engaged in good, enriching activities that help them learn in a fun way. Making sure we had that critical piece in the bill was important.

I am also grateful for the support for the number of Alaska-specific provisions that will ensure that this bill, unlike the No Child Left Behind Act, will truly fit Alaska's needs. I appreciate a great deal the work Senator Alexander put into working through some of these issues with us, understanding the Alaska piece, recognizing that sometimes we have entities that are different from what you have in the lower 48. How you translate that when you are drafting language to make sure it works is key. His staff worked with mine to make sure we didn't drop the ball in these areas.

Those of us who are parents realize that this legislation will give us a stronger voice in our children's education and encourage parents to take the lead in helping our schools communicate better with parents rather than the other way around. Again, coming into the politics of schools, knowing that your parents have a voice in what is happening at the school is critically important.

Over the years, we have all met with teachers, school board members, parents, principals, superintendents, and students from our States who were so discouraged, very discouraged, sometimes just plain old fed up with the No Child Left Behind top-down control over every decision. The Every Student Succeeds Act guarantees that our parents, teachers, tribes, community leaders, and principals have a seat at the table to design how our schools serve our children. It even guarantees our Governors a voice while drastically reducing the role of the Secretary of Education here in Washington, DC.

I want to acknowledge the good work of the members of the Senate HELP Committee and their staffs. We all know their staffs put in amazing hours to get the bill to this point, working together, compromising, negotiating, making their case for the priorities of their constituents.

This bill is one of the great examples--a poster child, if you will--of how Congress should be working around here. It is hard work, but it requires compromise. It requires an open amendment process in committee, which we absolutely had. We had days of process on the committee and then here on the floor but also within the conference committee. We had a real, live, old-fashioned conference committee, and it was an absolute pleasure to be part of a process where you could go in with your colleagues from the House on the other side of the table and go back and forth in further perfecting a bill.

In just a few days, the baton on education reform will be handed off to the people of our States. I look forward to this. I am encouraging folks back home to get involved, be aware, know what is going on. It will be a responsibility every one of our constituents must take seriously. No matter what role they play in a student's life, what happens next in each of our States will be determined by the people who show up, who share their perspectives with their States, with their departments of education, with their school boards. And I believe that coming together in this way at the local and State level--together it will be a good job for Alaska's children and for all of our Nation's children.

With that, Mr. President, I thank you.

I yield the floor.