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Sen. Chris Murphy Plans to Go to Bat for Students With Disabilities

With the retirement of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., two long-time champions for special education, there's been some question as to who on Capitol Hill will fill their void.

And as Congress begins reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that question is all the more pertinent.

As one lobbyist for special education policy put it in an interview last month: "There is a void now. It's there and it's real." 

Well, it might not be there for much longer.

Meet Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who sits on the Senate education committee and said in an interview Tuesday that he plans on going to bat for students with disabilities.

"I have no interest in going back to a world in which disabled kids get a fundamentally different education of inferior quality than non-disabled children," said Murphy, whose wife taught middle school before working for a decade as a legal aide lawyer for children with disabilities.

"I will be judging the draft and every amendment to the draft in part by whether it preserves the gains we've made for kids with learning disabilities," he added.

The reauthorization process has already kicked off in the Senate, where Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and chairman of the education committee, unveiled a NCLB reauthorization discussion draft last week. On Wednesday, the committee will hold its first hearing on the topic, focusing on testing and accountability—the K-12 policy generating the most debate so far.

Murphy said that while there are some elements of the draft that are a "non-starters" for Democrats, including Title I portability and vouchers, there is also room to negotiate and work together, especially on the issue of testing.

"I think there's going to broad consensus to decrease the emphasis of testing in schools," he said. "But I am not interested in completely eliminating accountability and completely eliminating the ability to track the achievement gap."

When asked whether there's a chance that committee members are able to craft a bipartisan bill, Murphy said he was hopeful.

"Sen. Alexander has made a commitment to come and meet with all the Democratic members of the committee," he said. "I think that's an exceptional gesture that shows that he's committed to bipartisan reform."

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