Posted on May 14, 2004
WASHINGTON - More than 560,000 middle- and low-income students in Tennessee would be eligible for federal aid under a plan by Sen. Lamar Alexander to pump millions of dollars into public education. Called Pell Grants for Kids, the proposal being introduced Monday by the Tennessee Republican would provide $ 500 scholarships to families earning less than the state median income — $ 56,052 for a family of four in Tennessee. Parents could use the money to send their children to a different school — public or private. It could also be used to pay for music or art classes or after-school programs. Or, Alexander said, parents at one school could pool their resources to pay for additional teachers, establish advanced programs or make needed repairs. Alexander estimates about 60 percent of students in kindergarten through grade 12 across the country would be eligible for the annual grant. That means about 30 million students nationally and 562,897 in Tennessee could take advantage of the initiative. Despite the potential impact, Alexander concedes his plan may get lost during election-year politicking on Capitol Hill and may not pass Congress this year. The senator will outline his proposal during a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated public schools. During an interview, the former governor, U.S. education secretary and University of Tennessee president said wide gaps in academic achievement remain between minorities and whites and poor and affluent students despite progress made in integrating the nation's public schools. He said his proposal was one attempt to try to close the disparity. "We still have some real inequality that remains, and this might help," he said. Alexander acknowledged that Pell Grants for Kids is a voucher program, but he explained that it differs from the traditional voucher programs. Those programs allow parents to use federal dollars to send their children only to private or parochial schools, and do not pay for after-school programs or classes. Alexander, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on children and families, said he would seek additional funding from Congress to pay for the program, which he estimates would cost $ 2.5 billion the first year. He expects to introduce legislation in June and hold hearings in July. The senator's proposal got a mixed review from the Tennessee Education Association representing 60,000 educators in the Volunteer State. "We are for higher standards, and we want every child to have an excellent school experience," said Judy Beasley, the association's president. "But these kinds of proposals worry us." Beasley questioned whether $ 500 would be enough for parents who want to send their children to a private school. She also wondered whether it was wise for Congress to spend money on Alexander's initiative when lawmakers have failed to fully fund other programs. "I would rather see our leaders put money into supporting things that have been in place for 30-40 years," Beasley said, "rather than into new things that have been untested." Jeanne Allen, president of The Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization advocating school choice, applauded Alexander's proposal. "It's certainly a noble goal," she said. "The idea that we should be allowing parents to make more of the decisions about the education of their children is especially important 50 years after the Brown decision. We need equity for our children and we need better schools for our kids." Alexander said he patterned his proposal after the federal Pell Grant program for college students, which he says is successful because it allows students to use the grant money wherever they choose. The education-minded senator said he drew encouragement for his idea three weeks ago from Raymon Holiday, a Haynes Middle School student who won a poster contest sponsored by the American Lung Association. During an event honoring the winners, Alexander told Raymon's family how impressed he was with the student's talent and encouraged him to continue his art study. Raymon's grandfather, Alexander said, noted that during times of school budget crises, art and music programs are usually the first to get cut. "I thought Raymon's parents could use this $500," Alexander said.