Last year, campaigning for re-election, I said to Tennessee voters, "Give us a Republican majority in the United States Senate, and we'll repeal the federal Common Core mandate and reverse the trend toward a national school board."
Last week, the United States Congress did just that, and President Obama signed it. The Wall Street Journal called our legislation fixing the 2001 No Child Left Behind law "the largest devolution of federal control to states in a quarter of a century."
Twice, partisan Democrat proposals had failed to fix what Newsweek called "the law everyone wants fixed." This year, as the Senate Education Committee's new chairman, I made it our first priority. Our proposal was bipartisan. It could not have been enacted without the support of Democrat senators and the signature of a Democrat president.
First, the new law explicitly prohibits Washington from mandating or even incentivizing Common Core or any other specific academic standards.
Second, it prohibits Washington from deciding which schools and teachers are succeeding or failing.
Third, it eliminates the waivers from No Child Left Behind rules that allowed the U.S. Department of Education to act, in effect, as a national school board for 80,000 schools in 42 states — including Tennessee. Governors were having to go to Washington and play "Mother, may I?" for a state to put in a plan to evaluate teachers, for example.
Fourth, the new law strengthens the charter schools program, giving parents more choices and teachers more freedom.
There was not only a consensus that the law needed fixing, but also about how to fix it: Keep the important measurements of student achievement, disaggregate and report the results of those tests, but restore to states, school districts, and teachers the decisions about what to do about the results. I believe our new law will result in fewer but better tests.
The huge bipartisan vote — 85-12 in the Senate and 359-64 in the House — makes clear that, in the future, the path to higher standards, better teaching and real accountability will be through states and communities and classrooms not Washington, D.C.
The fact is, Tennessee already was doing pretty well without Washington's supervision. During the 1980s, we became the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. In the 1990s, Tennessee pioneered relating student achievement to teacher performance. Later on, Govs. Bredesen and Haslam pushed our academic standards higher and improved teacher evaluation. As a result, since 2011, Tennessee has been the fastest improving state in reading and math, as measured by the "Nation's Report Card." Restoring responsibility to states and classroom teachers, I believe, will inaugurate a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement.
Enacting this law was not easy. Everyone is an expert on education. It was a lot like being in a football stadium with 100,000 fans, all of whom knew exactly which play to call — and usually said so.
Some Republicans wanted even more local control. I was one of them. But I took the advice of a president named Reagan and supported getting 80 percent of what I wanted. Besides, voting "No" would have left in place the federal Common Core mandate and the national school board.
For those who have been saying that Congress can't get anything done and that campaign speeches never matter, I hope you will look at the new Every Student Succeeds Act.
It creates some real winners: 50 million children and 3.4 million teachers in 100,000 public schools.
Sen. Lamar Alexander is chairman of the U.S. Senate's education committee. He has been U.S. Secretary of Education, Tennessee governor and University of Tennessee president.