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A Sit-Down With Sen. Patty Murray, One of ESSA's Architects

The Every Student Succeeds Act is officially six months old Friday. Politics K-12's Alyson Klein sat down separately with all four of ESSA's key architects in Congress to talk about the development of the law, the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, and its future.

This interview, with Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, took place back in April, before the U.S. Department of Education released proposed ESSA regulations on accountability, so if you're looking for her take on that, you'll have to look at other coverage.

Here's an edited and paraphrased version of the chat with Murray about the law she helped craft..Patty-Murray-blog.jpg

ESSA was eventually hailed as a bipartisan achievement, but the process started off on a partisan note, with Sen. Lamar Alexander [the Senate education committee chairman] planning to write a GOP-only bill, and peel off a handful of Democrats to get it through the Senate. How did Murray convince him he needed to work with her from the jump?

It doesn't sound like there was any magic to it—the two just had a conversation. "I talked to him," Murray said. "I said you can't go through a partisan process ... I knew that if we pushed through a partisan bill we would not fix this [the NCLB law].  I wanted to get it fixed."

Washington state was the first state to lose its waiver from the NCLB law, and Murray tried to convince the department not to pull the state's flexibility. How much did Washington's situation figure into Murray's motivation?

That was a concern, she said, noting that "parents across the state were getting letters" saying their child's school wasn't making progress. But that wasn't the only driving factor, she said. Schools around the country, not just in Washington weren't benefiting under the "one size fits all mandates" of NCLB. "We were in a terrible quandary where everyone hated the law." And Murray worried that if the new law wasn't written in 2015, it would take a long time to get momentum for a rewrite back.

The National Education Association worked closely with Alexander during the process of developing ESSA. Was that difficult for Murray, since the union is a traditional Democratic ally?

No, she said. She thinks the union worked with Alexander "because he's chairman of the committee"—and would ultimately need to support any bill that moved. And she points out that she and her team were working with a wide variety of groups,

The last part of the agreement bill settled was whether the early-childhood education known as Preschool Development Grants would go into the U.S. Department of Education, as Murray hoped, or the Department of Health and Human Services. How did that get resolved?  

Murray, a former preschool teacher, told GOP negotiators that "this had to be part of" the new law" even though she got "huge pushback from Republicans." She had a choice of a small program at the Education Department or a bigger program at HHS, and ultimately opted for the bigger program. She said she will push to ensure that the program truly is jointly administered by both agencies, as is specified in the law.

Is Murray worried about what might happen with ESSA implementation and the delicate compromise it makes if Donald Trump wins the presidential race?

She didn't say one way or the other, but it's clear she'll be keeping a watchful eye out, no matter who is at the helm at the Education Department. "I will use every power of oversight," she said.

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