U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) today told the annual meeting of the nation’s governors that they must simultaneously pressure Congress to remove federal obstacles to innovation as well as take steps on their own if they seek to improve their states’ and our nation’s international competitiveness.
“In many ways, Washington has its foot on the neck of states trying to promote competitiveness, and we’re working to lift it,” Alexander said. “But there’s still a lot you can do to invest in maintaining America’s historical advantage in brainpower.”
As a former governor, Alexander said, “Nothing makes me madder than when Washington creates some new requirement and then expects the states to pay for it.” He cited Medicaid, the Real ID act, and the Internet tax moratorium as examples, and urged his audience to speak with members of Congress directly, noting that Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen has done so personally.
When the governors return home, Alexander urged them to consider the recommendations of a commission of the National Academies, which is the foundation of bipartisan legislation to be introduced in the coming weeks.
The specific recommendations of the commission, chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, include:
Recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers with four-year scholarships and training 250,000 current teachers in summer institutes.
Tripling the number of students who take Advanced Placement math and science exams.
Increasing federal funding for basic research in the physical sciences by 10 percent a year for seven years.
Providing 30,000 scholarships and graduate fellowships for future American scientists.
Granting foreign students who earn a PhD in science, engineering, math or computing “green cards” so they can live and work in the United States.
Giving American companies a bigger research and development tax credit so they will keep their good jobs here instead of moving them offshore.
“I believe the price tag for this effort is low compared to the benefits of investing in competitiveness,” Alexander said. “America’s brainpower advantage has not come on the cheap. This year, one-third of state and local budgets go to fund education. Over 50 percent of American students have a federal grant or loan to help pay for college. The federal government spends nearly $30 billion per year on research at universities and another $34 billion to fund 36 national research laboratories.
“That’s a lot of money. But consider that just last year, we spent $2 billion a week to fight the war in Iraq, $71 billion for hurricane recovery, $13 billion in increased Medicaid spending and $352 billion to finance the national debt. If we fail to invest the funds necessary to keep our brainpower advantage, we’ll not have an economy capable of producing enough money to pay the bills.”
Many of the ideas in the proposed legislation can be emulated at the state level, Alexander said, such as creating summer academies for teachers’ continuing education, increasing AP courses, and creating math and science residential high schools. He cited a recent $1 million contribution from the Eastman Chemical Company to East Tennessee State University for math teachers’ professional development as an example of public-private cooperation.
The most important single thing a state can do to keep its brainpower advantage, Alexander said, is to “find a fair way to reward outstanding schools, teachers and principals.” Doing so was a key accomplishment of Alexander’s two terms as Tennessee’s governor, but he warned that it is far from easy and inevitably provokes intense opposition from the National Education Association.
“Education boils down to the parent and the teacher and the principal, and everything else is about 5 percent,” Alexander said. “I don’t know how to write a better parents bill, so we need to work with teachers. Why not find a fair way to reward outstanding teachers?”