Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) “Head Start”

Posted on November 14, 2007

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, it is not too much to say that this vote on this piece of legislation on Head Start is about whose century this century will be. Some say it will be China’s century. Some say it will be India's century. I think the jury is still out, but I do believe it can be the American century, and I believe it is up to us to make sure it is. We have the advantages in our country. One of them, of course, is our brain power advantage. We don't have better brains than others, but since World War II, we have spent a great deal of time building our education system, our universities, our research laboratories. We worked together this year to pass the America COMPETES Act, authorizing $34 billion over the next 3 years to step that up. A second advantage we have is the e pluribus unum. We are one country. Where different countries are fractured, we are working here to help our children and our new arrivals learn English, our common language, and to learn our American history so we can stay as one country. That is an advantage we have. The third advantage we have is that we are the only country in the world that believes that anything is possible. We don't say leave just a few children behind, or 80 percent of us are created equal; we set these very high goals. Anything is possible. Most of our politics is about failing to reach the goals, dealing with the disappointment, and then trying again. How do we make sure that the dream that anything is possible is real? Well, No. 1, we keep down taxes and we keep down regulations, and we keep markets free so people can go from the back to the front of the line. The other thing we do is to make sure that all Americans have a chance to get to the starting line ready. Some people need some help, and that is what Head Start is about. I was very pleased to come to this floor in the earlier part of this year with Senator Kennedy, Senator Enzi, and Senator Dodd, introducing a piece of legislation that we hoped would get to the point this one has today. I thank them for the way they have worked on this for the last 3 or 4 years. It didn't matter much whether it was a Republican or a Democratic Senate; we all worked together and we are here now this result. A lot has changed, and there are four major advantages to this bill, in my opinion. No. 1, I call special attention to the 200 new centers of excellence that are created. These are opportunities for Governors to look, say, at Nashville or at Boston or at some place in their State and designate a center of excellence. These would be shining examples of all of the best efforts that are being made for early childhood education. The centers would get up to $200,000 a year for 5 years and would hopefully try to coordinate all early childhood education and development efforts. When I was a child, my mother's preschool class in the garage in our backyard was the only preschool education program in town. In the 1970s, Tennessee adopted public kindergarten for the first time, a few years after Head Start. Well, today, Head Start is a $7 billion program. It has 1,700 agencies, 29,000 centers, but that is far from all the effort we are making. There are 21 billion Federal dollars for early childhood education, and many State and local dollars. They are not always spent in the most efficient manner. The President thought it would be better to give the Head Start funds to the States. I disagree with that. We have disagreed with that, but we have respected his impulse by saying in these 200 centers for the next 5 years, let's see what happens. Let’s see what happens when States work with local governments and put all the Federal, State, and local money together for early childhood education in these centers for excellence. Second, there is a system for renewal for Head Start agencies. There is not an automatic renewal after this time, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services will develop a process for that to make sure that for every cycle, the Head Start agency earns its right to continue. Third, there is clear authority to governing boards about the big dollars we are spending here and the big lives we are affecting. We heard eloquent testimony from the mayor of Shelby County, A.C. Wharton, about money that was stolen down there. So we have done a better job listening to Mayor Wharton and to others in making it clear who is in charge of the money, who is in charge of the administration, and at the same time, making sure that the parents, who are the lifeblood of the uniqueness of Head Start, are active and full participants through policy councils. Finally, as the President also recommended, we have worked over the last 2 or 3 years in developing this bill to increase cognitive learning standards. Forty years ago, we didn't know nearly as much about how the brains of very young children work, but we know now that to be ready to learn, to be at the starting line when the time comes to go to school, children need to learn more in their earlier years. So Head Start will provide that opportunity. It is not too much to say that this bill is about whose century this will be. We hope it will be the century of every child in the world, but we like the idea that it could be the American century, and we want to take full advantage of the assets we have. One of the assets we have is the dream that anything is possible, that you can go from the back of the line to the front. We will keep our markets free. We will try to keep our taxes down. We will get rid of unnecessary regulations so people can get ahead. But this bill is a commitment that says we will also make certain we will do our best to make sure every single child has an opportunity to get to the starting line ready to succeed. Thank you, Mr. President.