Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - President Obama’s Education Speech

Posted on July 29, 2010

    Mr. President, the President of the United States made an important speech this morning.  He spoke to the National Urban League Centennial Conference on Education. 


    Every speech a President makes is important, but this speech is especially important, and I commend the President for his courage, for his vision, and for his willingness to undertake the hard work of helping children across this country learn what they need to know and be able to do, and the competence with which he is doing that. 


    Let me be specific about why I say that.  No. 1, the President began with teachers.  He extolled teachers.  He said he wanted to lift them up as high as he could, he wanted them to be on the front pages of magazines, and for us to dignify them in every way we could.  But he didn't back away from tackling the most important and the most difficult challenge that any of us who have dealt with education reform have found; that is, how do we reward outstanding teachers.  Especially, how do we tie that reward to student achievement?  In other words, what can we do to help reward and encourage those outstanding men and women who help our children learn, particularly our children who are having the hardest time learning? 


    All of us know a great teacher makes a great difference.  The President said that himself.  Each of us in the Senate knows that.  But any of us who have, over the last several years, spent time trying to find ways to reward outstanding teaching knows how hard it is. 


    I worked on it in 1983 when Tennessee became the first State to reward outstanding teaching.  Not one State at that time paid one teacher one penny more for being a good teacher.  They could make more money for being around a long time.  They could make more money for getting a degree.  But they didn't make more money at all if the children were succeeding. 


    For a while that worked because we were able to capture women.  They had very few options and they became saints in the classroom and they were our teachers.  But in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s, women had many options, and they took them.  In the companies where they went to work, they were paid more for excellence.  They made good salaries.  As a result, it became more difficult to attract and keep outstanding men and women in our classrooms. 


    Governor Graham, who was later a Senator, tried the same thing in Florida.  Governor Clinton -- later a President -- was trying many of the same ideas in Arkansas.  Those were the 1980s. 
Every education meeting I go to comes down to the same point:  After you get past the role of the parent, the teacher is the center of it.  Whether a child is a gifted child or whether a child comes from a home where he or she does not have breakfast, or whether a child comes from a home where he or she has never been read a book until they are 7, whether a child needs to be in school 12 hours a day or 8, on Saturdays or not, the teacher at the center of the education of that school is the indispensable product and the best and most important part of a child's ability to achieve and to learn.


    What the President has done -- through the Teacher Incentive Fund that he has continued to encourage, and through his leadership on the subject -- deserves credit and support from all Americans.  I for one am here to offer him that.

    Second, he talked about charter schools.  He is not the first to do that either.  I remember as Education Secretary on my last week in office, in 1993, I wrote a letter to all the superintendents in America to encourage them to try charter schools.  At the time they were the invention of a few Democratic liberal reformers in Minnesota.  There were maybe a dozen charter schools at that moment.  But charter schools were simply "start over" schools.  It was simply saying to a faculty:  Let's start over.  What if we took off the rules and regulations and gave you the freedom to do with the children who are presented to you what they need, so if you need to start at 7 in the morning and finish at 7 in the night, do it.  If you need 2-hour classes, do it.  If you need 200 days a year instead of 180 days at school, do that as well.  If you need to learn during Easter holidays, do that.


    Who are the beneficiaries of the charter schools?  When they work, the beneficiaries are most often the children who come from the most difficult circumstances.


    I can point to a charter school in Memphis I visited 3 years ago where it was an Easter holiday.  The children there were ninth or tenth graders.  Instead of being on Easter holiday, they were studying for their advanced placement course in biology at the freshman or sophomore level.  There was not any other school in Tennessee where children that age were studying advanced placement biology, especially during the Easter week break.


    President Obama has done what President Bush did, what President Clinton did, what Vice President Gore did, what I have done, what many others have done, which is to say:  Let's have independent public charter schools and give teachers the freedom to do what they know how to do.  The first thing is rewarding outstanding teaching.  As the late Albert Shanker, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, used to say:  If we can have master plumbers, we can have master teachers, and we can pay them accordingly, pay them very well, and let's have charter schools and give teachers the freedom to do what they in their own good judgment know to do. 


    The third thing the President talked about was high standards.  That is also not a new idea but he has advanced it down the road very well.  Higher standards are an indispensable part of a good education in kindergarten through the 12th grade.


    The way I used to help Tennesseans learn about that was to say look at all these big new auto plants that are coming into our State.  To get a job there, you have to know a lot more today than you did when your parents might have worked there, or your grandparents.  You have to know algebra and statistics.  You have to know English well to be able to communicate.  In other words, the standards are high if we are going to compete in the world and keep our high standard of living. 


    While a lot of work has been done by the Governors of the country through ACHIEVE, the President has advanced the idea of common standards very well in the last 18 months, and he has done it in the right way.  He has not said:  Okay, I am the President; we will write it from Washington.  That would have killed it -- or at least I hope it would have killed it.  He didn't say that.  He said let's create an environment in which States can make a difference and make their own choices, and States, in surprisingly large numbers, are beginning to do that, in terms of reading and math.
    The fourth area the President spoke about, and this is  his own initiative, is the Race to The Top.  This is infusing one of the hardest things that is possible to infuse in public education and that is excellence.  We have a democratic society.  We are usually interested in leveling things.  If we have five things, one goes to each person.


    What is hard for us to do in government, and that means public education as well, is to say let's reward excellence.  Let's say to those school districts or to those States or those teachers or those others who are making the A-pluses and the A's and doing the best job, we want to incentivize  you to do that.  He has found a way to do that.  It is a fair way.  He has kept politics out of it.  He has put money into it and he deserves credit for it.


    Finally, he has picked a very good Secretary of Education.  I said when Arne Duncan was appointed that he might be the President's best appointment.  I still think that.  That is not because I agree with everything Arne Duncan has recommended.  In fact, I think he was completely wrong about the student loan takeover.  I think his proposal on gainful employment, which is an obscure higher education thing and a different subject, is, with all respect, a little wacky.  But what I think is he is an excellent leader for education, and he has a big heart and he has worked in a bipartisan way, and he has gotten results that are as good as anybody could possibly have gotten on some of the toughest subjects facing our country.


    The President and Arne Duncan deserve our applause and support for their efforts.  We will have differences of opinion about how much we can spend and when we can spend it, but if the goal is to reward outstanding teaching, to create more charter schools, to help States raise standards in an environment where they are not told to do so by Washington, but create an environment to do it themselves; if the goal is to infuse excellence into public higher education by challenging States to do better, then we should be for that and we should do it together.


    I think President Obama has the opportunity in public education to do what President Nixon did in China.  It may be easier for a Democratic President to make these changes or to lead the country in these changes than it would be for a Republican President, just as it was easier for a Republican President in the early 1970s to cause us to have an opening to China.  That is a large claim to make but I think it is an equally important goal.


    About the only thing I disagreed with today in the President's speech was this.  He said teachers were the most important part of a child's education.  I think a parent is and I think he does, too.  I think he would agree.  I think parents and teachers are 90 percent of it and it starts with the parent.  The reason I think he would agree with that is because he had good parents and he is a good parent and a very good example to the rest of the country. 


     Anyone who has read his biography, "The Audacity of Hope," knows the story of his mother getting him up at 4 o'clock in the morning in Indonesia and teaching him math and to read and telling him:  Buster, it's not any fun for me so get busy and learn, and he learned very well.  His example as a good parent and good student is exactly the kind of example we need for students and parents across our country.


    This is a time when we have differences of opinion on many issues.  I will have some differences of opinion with the President on education, as I mentioned.  But I have no lack of enthusiasm for the importance of his leadership on K-12 education, on rewarding outstanding teaching, on giving teachers the freedom to create schools in which they can use their common sense, on creating high standards, on the Race to The Top, on setting a good example as a good parent, and I thought it was important -- perhaps especially for a Republican Senator who spent a number of years working on these issues as Education Secretary and president of a university and Governor -- to come to the floor and say:  Good work, Mr. President.  An excellent address.  And on those broad issues and themes, you have my full support.