WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is one of the most forceful advocates in Congress for Americans perched on the middle rung of the economic ladder or lower.
So it’s been an open secret for months that Murray hoped to swap her chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa when he relinquished the gavel of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which has wide jurisdiction on issues affecting working-class families.
When the 114th Congress begins Jan. 6, Murray will take over Harkin’s committee seat. But thanks to the November elections, she will be the ranking Democrat, not chairwoman.
That likely will make it even harder for Murray to make progress on her priorities, many of which Republicans oppose on fiscal or ideological grounds. Among them are expanding access to taxpayer-funded preschools, raising the minimum wage and restoring contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act that was stripped out by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
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“The reality we know is that we now have a Republican-controlled Senate and House,” Murray said in a recent interview, acknowledging dim prospects for passage of contentious issues. “That doesn’t mean I’m not going to fight for it.”
Murray’s best shot at an accord in the HELP committee might be reauthorizing the elementary- and secondary-education law signed by President George W. Bush called No Child Left Behind. The law, which has been awaiting renewal since 2007, mandated testing to ensure that every public-school student in the nation was performing at grade level on math and English by the 2013-14 academic year.
Currently, fewer than 50 percent of American students meet that benchmark. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Education has granted waivers from the federal law to virtually every state. Washington state received, then lost, the exemption this April after legislators failed to abide by a condition to incorporate student test scores into teacher evaluations.
Murray said she’s hopeful she can help forge a compromise education act with Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the incoming HELP committee chairman. Working in their favor, Murray said, is that congressional Democrats and Republicans “all agree it’s a broken law.”
Murray is a former preschool teacher and PTA president who served on the Shoreline School District board of directors. Alexander is a son of a high-school principal and a preschool teacher and was secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.
Yet Murray and Alexander will have to bridge a deep partisan divide on how much say — if any — the federal government ought to have in securing every child a good public education. In 2013, the Republican-led House and the Democrat-controlled Senate HELP committee passed competing education bills almost entirely along party lines. Alexander objected to the Senate bill as creating a “national school board.”
Neither party, however, has proposed overturning the current requirement for annual standardized testing in grades three to eight and testing once in high school. Relying on test scores as a proxy for teacher quality remains controversial among some educators and their unions.
Diane Ravitch, former undersecretary of education under Alexander who later turned against testing, said No Child Left Behind made the federal government an arbiter of school quality and has been a “disaster.”
“Today there is a tremendous and growing anti-testing movement in every state in this nation,” said Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University. Murray and Alexander should “eliminate the federal role in overtesting students.”
Murray defended standardized testing, saying it “has a critical role to play” in gauging student learning and helping teachers “assess if what they are doing is right.”
Nonetheless, Murray believes testing for accountability can go too far.
The suspected test tampering at Seattle’s Beacon Hill International School, Murray said, could be an example of how overzealous reliance on testing sometimes backfires. Seattle Public Schools this summer invalidated Beacon Hill students’ scores on state tests after discovering excessive erasures that converted wrong answers into correct ones.
In Seattle, high test scores can earn principals thousands of dollars in bonuses and qualify teachers for higher-paying positions as mentors for their peers. The district is hoping a handwriting expert can finger who was responsible for the alterations.
Inflexible and unrealistically high standards for test scores, Murray said, can create ”such tremendous pressure that the outcomes could be things like what we’re seeing” at Beacon Hill.
Murray conceded it would be difficult to secure federal spending for one of her chief ambitions, universal preschool. Seattle voters in November approved higher property taxes to pay for city-subsidized preschool, and New York City this year began offering free, full-day classes for 4-year-olds.
But there “is a huge hole at the federal level,” said Murray, who believes early-childhood education is a necessary investment for a competitive global economy.
Murray also said she would seek advice on how to advance a bill introduced by Harkin and other Democrats last year to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2016. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in February estimated that could cost jobs for 500,000 low-wage workers as employers cut back. That would be offset by $31 billion in higher earnings by 2016, for a net gain of $2 billion in real income.
That economic argument still wasn’t enough for Democrats to get the minimum-wage bill passed in this Congress, said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.
Despite a push by Murray and her Democratic colleagues, Congress this year also did not renew extended unemployment benefits for people out of work for more than six months, said Bernstein, former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.