Why Patty Murray is the Key to an ESEA Deal

Yesterday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released his hotly awaited discussion draft for a reauthorization of ESEA: the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015. But given that the 114th Congress has only been in session for a couple weeks, it should come as no surprise that this draft isn’t really new. It’s mostly his 2013 bill (of the same name) repackaged, as Chad Aldeman wrote earlier. Still, Alexander is determined to shepherd it through Congress by summer, despite the fact that this proposal failed to win a single Democratic vote in committee last time around.

But maybe times have changed. At least that’s what some, like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, are hoping. After all, in floor speeches yesterday, both Alexander and Senate HELP Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) praised the virtues of bipartisanship in fixing No Child Left Behind. And Murray is known for being a savvy consensus-builder in her time at the helm of the Senate Budget Committee.

I wouldn’t count on it this time. That’s because Alexander and Murray may agree on the tone of the debate, but not on policy. And in Senator Murray’s view, the problem with NCLB is not an out-of-control federal government. Rather, Murray defended the federal role, even though her own state lost its waiver from NCLB because of it, and laid out key principles for reauthorization that echoed Secretary Duncan’s remarks on Monday: the need for a new ESEA to ensure that states adopt high standards, better and more streamlined annual testing systems, and strong accountability policies, alongside increased investments in innovation and early childhood.

As leader of the committee Democrats and a member of Senate minority leadership, Murray’s ESEA stance is a leading indicator of how Alexander’s draft will be received, and proceed, through the Senate. Her remarks may not have been as forceful as the Secretary’s, but that only proves her value in the coming negotiations–as one that could bring the two sides closer together (UPDATE: especially after Duncan’s tepid reaction to the draft bill).

But in making so few changes to his 2013 draft bill, Alexander has yet to make a serious effort to bring Murray into the fold. And that’s a mistake. It’s true that her support may not be critical to getting Alexander the 60 votes he needs on the floor, especially if he tries to woo anti-testing, union-friendly Democrats. But her support remains critical to getting the 60 votes Alexander will need to get a bill to President Obama that he can sign.

If these are Murray’s policy preferences—and if Secretary Duncan insists on combatting the “soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional’”—then Alexander’s draft bill just isn’t going to cut it. Not in the super-majority Senate, and not on the President’s desk.