The Jackson Sun: Alexander hosts roundtable on education

Posted on June 23, 2015

Deregulating federal control of education and simplifying financial aid programs were the focus of two roundtable forums led by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) Friday at Jackson State Community College.

"We didn't need Washington telling us how to deal with our low performing schools," Alexander said. "We might need to know what they are, but it's up to us, if we really want to fix them, to do that locally."

The first panel, which included both educators and state officials focused on the Every Child Achieves Act, which would update and reauthorize No Child Left Behind.

The act would maintain federal testing requirements, but allow states to decide how to increase student achievement. It would also end federal incentives for the Common Core State Standards and end additional requirements for states seeking waivers from federal law.

If all goes smoothly, the bill could become law by August, Alexander said.

Susan Bunch, superintendent of the Lexington City School District, and Verna Ruffin, superintendent of the Jackson-Madison County School System, both said they worried that some states might not enforce high expectations without clear guidelines.

"It's very important that our students become equipped not just for the state of Tennessee, but nationally," Ruffin said. "I'm not advocating for national standards. I am very strongly advocating for something that will allow us to assure our students and our parents that when we say that child is ready, that child is ready by a certain standard."

Chris Nye, a JMCSS teacher and parent, said he hopes federal deregulation will allow control to trickle down from the state to local school boards. Increasing the influence of teachers and school boards will bring a level of respect, he said.

"What I have felt the last 12 years in my teaching is I've been micromanaged as to what expectation I had to meet," Nye said.

The second panel focused on the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act. The bill, co-introduced by Alexander, would decrease the 108-question Free Application for Financial Student Aid, or FAFSA, to two questions as well as simplify repayment options and federal grant and loan programs.

"(The FAFSA is) too complex," said Samuel W. "Dub" Oliver, Union University president. "It is a barrier to enrollment. It's the biggest barrier that's out there right now."

Each year, as many as 2 million students eligible for Pell grants fail to complete the FAFSA, according to a document handed out at the roundtable. Last year, Tennessee led the nation with 61 percent of high school seniors completing the FAFSA, Oliver said.

While commending the shortened FAFSA, Oliver said it will need to have more than two questions. He also said if the FAFSA is simplified, states and colleges might create their own forms, replicating the problem of a lengthy application.

Bruce Blanding, president of JSCC, pointed out that students who fail to complete the FAFSA are also blocked from participating in Tennessee Promise, which offers two years of free community college to all high school seniors.

Alexander's bill would also allow students to fill out the FAFSA during their junior rather than senior year. Federal grant and loan programs would be combined, year-round Pell grant availability would be restored and limitations based on enrollment would be set on the amount a student can borrow.

"We're going to save students time and money and stop discouraging so many students from taking advantage of the opportunity to continue their education," Alexander said.