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What Do Democratic Presidential Candidates Think of the Senate ESEA Bill?

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., take note: Hillary Rodham Clinton had some nice things to say about your bill to revamp the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Clinton, who was recently endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, told the union in her questionnaire that the bill "addresses some of the real challenges with the [No Child Left Behind Act] while retaining our commitment to high academic standards, and to assessments that give parents and teachers the information they need to know about how students are performing and if and where they need help to improve"

And when it comes to testing, Clinton thinks the lawmakers "struck the right balance" by keeping in place NCLB's testing schedule, which calls for annual tests in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, while allowing states to use "multiple measures" to demonstrate student achievement.

So what else did Clinton tell the union? Unsurprisingly, she pledged to continue her efforts to expand prekindergarten. And she disparaged vouchers, while reiterating her support for charter schools. Still, she said, charters need to be held to the same accountability and transparency standards as regular public schools and closed when they aren't working. 

So how do Clinton's answers compare to those of her Democratic rivals? Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, noted that he voted against NCLB back in 2001. And he still, "oppose[s] the [Senate] bill's reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to direct draconian interventions." NCLB, he said, ignores other factors that impact student performance, like poverty and access to health care, nutrition, and other supports.

But Sanders voted for the Alexander-Murray bill in committee, and sees it as a "step in the right direction" even if he wishes it did more on resource equity. 

And Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, said he also supports the bill, but wishes it had a stronger focus on funneling resources to the lowest-performing schools, as well as allowing states to use performance-based assessments. Those kinds of tests, he said, allow teachers to "adjust in real-time so student achievement accelerates." 

Why does this matter? Even though the ESEA is moving full-speed-ahead right now, it's not a done deal yet and it may not be finalized by the end of the Obama administration. If it's not finished by the end of the term, the next president may get to be the one to finish the job. So it's important that some leading contenders see the Alexander-Murray bill as a good place to start from. 

Bonus: The questionnaires include some pretty telling tidbits when it comes to the candidates' views on health care, higher education access, and other issues. 

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