Education, Energy and Election: A conversation with Senator Lamar Alexander

Posted on April 12, 2005

As a former U.S. Secretary of Education, assess the No Child Left Behind Act. What role should the federal government play in public education? The idea of No Child Left Behind is laudable and very simple in concept. It requires states to come up with state standards and state tests to measure every student's progress toward those standards. And it establishes a goal and spirit consistent with the American character - the idea that no child is left behind. We say that all men are created equal, that we'll pay any price or bear any burden to defend freedom and obviously we're going to say "no child left behind," rather than leave only 20 percent behind. The legislation also reminds us that a major part of the American character is decentralization and that we like local control. Most Americans want to make decisions about their own schools and not have somebody in Washington do it. As a result, we have a great deal of confusion right now and some unhappiness because of the difficulty of imposing even a very good idea from Washington on so many different kinds of communities. But the hope is that the confusion will be cleared up this year. That is, the federal government gives more flexibility to schools and to teachers. They will be able to come up with their own solutions, create their own tasks and modify their own standards so that every child has a chance to learn. We've either passed them without them learning or we've left them behind. Even in some very good schools, we have some children who aren't learning. I think that President Bush is right to call this to our attention and try to solve the problem. Oil prices are reaching new highs and may play a factor in slowing the economic recovery. As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Energy, what do you see as the most viable way to lessen American reliance on foreign oil? The first thing to do is to allow American producers of gas and oil to go find more oil and gas. It makes very little sense to encourage the use of natural gas, for example, to create electricity and then ban drilling for natural gas. It doesn't help the environment to force us to burn more coal that produces dirty air. It doesn't help the oceans to have oil tankers coming from the Middle East, any of which might get blown up and spill oil all over the water. We need to have a more sensible policy that allows us to explore and drill for more oil and gas in appropriate areas of the United States. The second thing that we should do is to focus heavily on new technologies that will limit our use of oil and gas. For example, the president has proposed a 20-year plan, which I am sponsoring, to create a hydrogen fuel cell car. The emissions from a fuel cell automobile are only water, so that would clean the air and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. There are other technologies that reduce our consumption of oil and gas. The hybrid cars, which combine electric motors with internal combustion engines, are catching on. And even diesel cars are coming back because they burn less oil. Also, there are other forms of energy that we should be using. I believe that we should begin to build more nuclear power plants. They now produce 20 percent of the nation's electricity. They do not pollute the air and we know how to use them safely. France produces about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants. Japan produces about 33 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants. We invented the technology, but we haven't built a new nuclear power plant in the United States since the 1970s. There are other alternative forms of energy, but all of them are on the margin. For example, people talk about windmills, but it would take an awful lot of windmills to compensate for one nuclear power plant. And you'd still have to have a power plant because the wind doesn't blow all of the time. You currently have co-sponsored legislation with Senator Tom Carper regarding the ability of states to tax internet use. What is the future of Internet taxation? What is the government's role in the development of the Internet? The question of whether Internet access should be taxed is ultimately a question for state and local governments, just as state and local governments decide whether to tax other transactions. That's what governors and mayors are for. They decide whether it's wise to impose a sales tax on the purchase of Internet access, the purchase of a movie, the purchase of water or the purchase of food. All of those are subject to taxation and state and local officials make their decisions about that. My position on the legislation here is that Congress should leave those decisions to governors and mayors, that it is wrong for politicians in Washington to impose some new cost on a state or local government without paying the bill. It sounds very good when a member of Congress has an expensive new idea, passes it into law, takes the credit for it and then sends the bill to the governor or the mayor. But it actually causes the governor or the mayor a big problem, because they either have to cut services, fire good teachers or raise the local property tax. Do you see Tennessee as a potential swing state in the 2004 election? Yes, I do. I think Tennessee leans toward President Bush. I think his foreign policy, his emphasis on free markets and his attitude on social issues is more consistent with the majority of Tennesseans. But Tennessee is a very independent state. We have a Democratic governor, half of our congressmen are Democrats and I think it will be a hard-fought race. Senator John Kerry recently described Republican critics as "the most crooked ... lying group I've ever seen" and has repeatedly questioned the administration's defense and economic policies. Are the Senate Republicans defending the White House or is there some validity to the presidential challenger's claims? I think that Senator Kerry got caught talking under his breath without knowing that he was being recorded, and he probably wishes he had been more careful. That's not the kind of conduct or comment that we would expect from a presidential candidate or a president. Senator Kerry should talk about how he wants to solve the problem in Iraq, since he voted for the war. He needs to be talking about how he would create new jobs. The president helped do this by lowering taxes. Senator Kerry needs to talk about his plan for raising taxes. It's better for the senator to talk about the issues, and I hope he and the president do that rather than engage in personal comments. Bush's controversial health care agenda has received lukewarm support from conservatives. What are the implications of his vision, and is this the best direction for our country? I think it was the best direction for our country. We would not consider enacting a Medicare program today for the first time without including prescription drugs. Prescription drugs, appropriately used, help us avoid disease, reduce health care costs over the long haul and make our lives better. We've had so many advances that it is not right that only rich people or middle-income people can afford prescription drugs. The President was very courageous to challenge Congress, and Congress acted to spend up to $400 billion over the next ten years, probably significantly more, making sure that low-income Americans have access to prescription drugs. I think that these lower-income Americans who benefit greatly from this bill will be grateful for it, and I think that most Americans will see that it is an important part of the President's compassionate attitude toward the country's future. Is there anything else that you would like to share with the students of Yale? The only thing that I want to suggest to the students of Yale is that I'd like to encourage them to study United States history at a time when our nation is challenged. We need to understand better our own country. We're the only country that is united by belief in a few principles rather than by race or nationality. Too often, United States history is not taught and not understood. It's very difficult to preserve our country. As wonderful a campus as Yale is, I would hope many students would take the time to learn the fantastic stories, the controversies and the struggles that go with the history of the United States.