Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Education Report Card on the Obama Administration

Posted on May 12, 2009

Mr. President, after 100 days, there have been a lot of report cards on the Obama administration. I would like, with respect, to offer one on a subject both the President and I think is of crucial importance: the education of the American people. As a good teacher would -- or as my late friend Alex Haley used to say: Find the good and praise it -- I would like to start with the good grades on this report card. So to begin with, I give President Obama an A-plus for recruiting. His best appointee, in my opinion, is the new Education Secretary, Arne Duncan from Chicago. The Acting President pro tempore might agree with that. The new Education Secretary grew up, as I did, in a family where the mom was a preschool teacher -- my mother in the mountains of Tennessee, his on the South Side of Chicago. He has a background for leadership. He has an agenda for rewarding outstanding teaching, an agenda for encouraging the largest number of charter schools possible, an agenda for encouraging States to set higher standards. He has a close relationship with the President. He is truly a blue-chip recruit. On the subject of rewarding outstanding teaching and charter schools, if he succeeds with that in 4 years or 8 years, it could be a Nixon to China exercise in education. So an A-plus for recruiting. Then, here is another A-plus: for rewarding outstanding teaching. This is the greatest need we have in kindergarten through the 12th grade in America. Every problem we are faced with -- after you deal with the question of having a good parent -- has to do with a good teacher. Whether we are talking about a gifted child or the needs of a child with a disability or of a child who has come from a home where a book has never been read to them or whether they are in the mountains of Tennessee or on the South Side of Chicago, put a child with the best possible teacher, and the child almost always succeeds. In 1983, when Tennessee became the first State to pay teachers more for teaching well, not one teacher was being paid more for being a good teacher. Many good people have worked hard on that: Governor Jim Hunt, Governor Bob Graham, Senator Bennet of Colorado, Senator Corker of Tennessee when he was mayor of Chattanooga. But it is hard to do, to find ways to reward outstanding school leadership and outstanding teaching, to pay some teachers more than others. But if we do not, we will not be able to attract and keep the best men and women in our classrooms and in our schools. The President's new budget increases from about $100 million to $500 million the Teacher Incentive Fund, which has been a big success across this country. Thirty-four grantees -- cities, school districts -- across the country are experimenting with different ways of rewarding outstanding teaching. There is not necessarily one way to do it. It almost always has to be worked out locally. Most of these cities are working with their unions to make this happen. Memphis City Schools is using their funds to train principles. Philadelphia's grant application was co-written by the local teachers union. The Northern New Mexico Network for Rural Education is working with four school districts. As I said earlier, if Secretary Duncan and the President can leave a legacy of dozens or hundreds of school districts, or even States, where outstanding teachers are paid more for their skills -- not just for being there a long time or for going back to school -- that would be the single most important legacy they could leave. Then, here is one more good grade: an A-minus for charter schools. Charter schools also have a little history behind them. They began in Minnesota. The last act I took as Education Secretary, in 1992, was to write every school superintendent in the country and encourage them to start charter schools. Albert Shanker, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, asked "If we can have a Saturn plant, why not a Saturn school?" What he meant was, why not start from scratch and take the union rules and the Government regulations off teachers and let them use their own good judgment to deal with the children who are assigned to them. The charter school is a pro-teacher idea. It has greatly expanded over the years, but it still runs into substantial opposition, usually from the National Education Association or other educators who do not like it. But these are public schools. These are designed to free teachers so they can use their judgment to help children. Secretary Duncan and the President are committed to them. The Secretary and I cowrote an op-ed for a Tennessee newspaper 2 weeks ago, which apparently helped to influence the vote of the legislature to begin to move along raising the cap on charter schools in Tennessee. I hope it did. I thank the Secretary for his bipartisan support and commitment. Again, if he is able to succeed, working with the President, and leaves a large number of public charter schools in our country when he leaves office, it will again be a "Nixon to China" experience and the country will be deeply grateful. The only reason why it is an A-minus is there is not much support in the budget for the major obstacle in creating more charter schools, which is support for financing for new facilities. Now for the bad news. Every parent has had this experience with the child's report card. Here is a D. That is for spending $80 billion over the next 2 years for more of the same in the Department of Education without even asking the question: Is what we are doing working? That is hard for me to imagine. The budget for the Department of Education would be at about $70 billion, so we are adding $40 billion to it this year and $40 billion next year for more of the same. Is everybody delighted with the way our K-12 grade system is working in America? I don't think so. We are challenged by it. We need to change it. So then why in the world would we put more money in for more of the same? The only thing that saves the grade from being an F is that there is $5 billion for the Secretary's Race to the Top, which is a good idea based on the agenda I described. What would we have done with the money? Well, I would have suggested we give a Pell Grant for Kids to every middle- and low-income child in the country and $500 for a state-approved afterschool program. Let the parents choose: for music, for art, for catch-up, for academic improvement. It would have poured billions into the school districts. It would have created some competition and middle- and lower income children would be given more options. That would be what we could have done. Here is another unfortunate grade: D-minus. That is for the DC voucher program. I see the Senator from Illinois. I had this all prepared. I had no idea he would be here. He has been a major participant in this. What keeps this from being an F is that the President and the Secretary have said they will continue funds for the 1,700 children in the District of Columbia who are now in high school and who are continuing, but after that, it is gone. This is a death sentence for the program. This is a death sentence for the model of giving low-income parents choices of better schools -- schools such as middle- and higher income parents have. It is the model that made our higher education system the best in the world. Senator Lieberman has said he will have a hearing on this DC voucher program. I hope he does. But let me go on to my concern beyond the DC voucher program to the bad news. I regret to say this, but the bad news has to do with Pell Grants and student loans. Pell Grants, of course, are the 5 million grants or scholarships that were made to low-income students this year to help them pay for college, with $19 billion that we have appropriated for that purpose this last year. Almost on the day it was announced that we had a $1.8 trillion deficit for this 1 year -- four times bigger than it was last year -- the President's budget wants to add $293 billion over 10 years to entitlement spending. That is automatic spending. That is the reason the country's debt is so high. Sixty percent of our spending is entitlement spending. I think the punishment for the administration should be that they should all be made to stay after school and write on the blackboard, each, 100 times: I will never, ever again add to entitlement spending, even for a worthy purpose. It is no gift to students to give them a scholarship to live in a country they can't afford to live in because it has an interest payment of $800 billion a year, which it would in the 10th year of the President's budget. It is not as if the Congress has been stingy with Pell grants. They have gone from $7.7 billion 10 years ago to $19 billion today, and 5 million students are getting them. All we say today is if we don't have the money we have appropriated, we can't spend it on scholarships. The President's proposal would say we are going to spend it whether we have it or not. Spend it whether we have it, despite the fact that our debt has grown to such levels that we couldn't even qualify to be admitted to the European Union, which is a huge embarrassment. That deserves an F and a stay after school and detention, as far as I am concerned. Here is another F, and it is for student loans. There are 15 million of those student loans -- about $75 billion -- and what the President's budget proposes to do is turn this great recruit -- this blue chip recruit, who I think has a good chance of being "Educator of the Year," into "Banker of the Year." He wants another Washington takeover, this time of student loans. Instead of letting 12 million students decide they would prefer to borrow from 2,000 institutions on 4,400 campuses all across America, they are saying: No-- everybody just line up at the U.S. Department of Education to get your student loan. The only justification for that, that I can see, is the administration says it might save the taxpayers money because the Federal Government can borrow cheaper than the banks can. Well, if that is true, then we ought to not have any private financial institutions in America; we ought to turn every financial institution into a national bank and let the President run them. Andrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, would turn over in his grave because he ran against the national bank during his whole political career. It makes no sense to turn the U.S. Department of Education into a national bank for student loans. It should not be done. The savings are illusory. In the President's budget they say $94 billion is what will be saved, but they leave out the administrative costs which could go as high as $32 billion, and they leave out the fact that what they are doing is borrowing money at one-quarter of 1 percent and loaning it to the students at 6.8 percent. So they are taking money from the students and using it to pay somebody else a scholarship, with the Congressman taking the credit. There needs to be some truth in lending here so that when students line up to get their student loans, somebody says: Did you know that the interest you are paying by working an extra job or by going at night is being used to pay somebody else's scholarship? If we take that part out of it, we could leave the program just like it is. Twelve million out of fifteen million students prefer to have a private choice. They have had 15 years to choose either the public option or the private choice, and they have consistently decided they would rather deal with the community bank than a Federal agency. Well, I am about through with the report card. The rest I would put under "incomplete." There is still a lot of good-faith effort: Deregulating higher education is a goal of mine and Senator Mikulski's as well, and the new Secretary of Education has said he will work on that. More flexibility in No Child Left Behind is a goal of mine; it may be of the Secretary's as well. We can work on that. My respectful suggestion to the President would be, instead of trying to make a tackle out of this wide receiver you recruited, instead of making Banker of the Year out of your Education Secretary, why don't you let him work on the education agenda? Why don't you let him focus on paying teachers more for teaching well and charter schools? If he runs out of things to do, to help parents, he could work on a tax system that is more favorable to parents with children; we used to have that in this country. He could work on encouraging perinatal care so every child has a medical home or helping nurses to help parents in their homes so children can grow up healthy or to make sure we do nothing to discourage home schooling for dedicated parents or helping adults learn English. There are lines in Nashville and in Boston and in other cities of adults who wish to learn English. He could encourage worksite daycare for parents who work and might take their child to work with them so they would be closer together. All that would be to help better parenting or to help create better teachers or better school leaders. The Pell Grant for Kids I mentioned for afterschool programs or higher standards in data collection, I know the Secretary is interested in that. Teach for America, that is an important part of new energy in our schools. The Secretary, instead of trying to be "Banker of the Year," could take on the teachers colleges which have had a hard time spending their time on such things as how to give parents more choices, how to reward outstanding teaching, how to make charter schools successful, or how to help newly arrived children learn English. He could expand the UTeach Program started at the University of Texas and which our America COMPETES legislation put into national law. That needs to be implemented. Then, the summer academies, to help outstanding teachers and outstanding students of U.S. history so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American. That would be a good thing to do. I look forward to working with this new Secretary of Education. I give the President credit. I give him an A-plus for his recruiting. I give him an A-plus for his agenda for rewarding outstanding teaching and a high grade for his focus on charter schools. I am grateful for that. I stand ready to work with him. I give him horrible grades for stopping the DC voucher program and another Government takeover, this one of student loans, and of taking money away from students who are getting loans to pay for scholarships for other students. That is not right. I think, in this day and age, when we are adding $1.8 trillion to the debt in 1 year, it is certainly no time to add $293 billion in entitlement spending to the budget over 10 years. The whole administration ought to write on the blackboard: I will never, ever again add to entitlement spending. I look forward to working with the President and his outstanding new Secretary on that incomplete agenda. Many of the items I mentioned are things in which they are interested in as well and things which all of us in the Senate would want to do to help improve our system of elementary and secondary education, as well as our excellent colleges and universities