Speeches & Floor Statements

Senate floor speech on his 'school choice' proposal w/ Sens. Paul, Rubio, Toomey and McConnell

Posted on March 21, 2013

I wish to speak for a few minutes about 11 million low-income children in America, children which all of us would like to help.  These are children that I wish would have a chance to get a little help getting to the starting line towards realizing the American dream.  I am talking about the children we help through the Federal education program called title I of the elementary and secondary education act.

     It is the largest of our federal programs aiding elementary and secondary schools.  It provides $14.5 billion a year to local school districts.  The express purpose of it is to help low-income children in schools across our country. 

     The problem is that the money is not going to help those children as it was intended.  It is being diverted for other purposes. 

     As part of our discussion today and tomorrow on the budget, I will be offering an amendment on behalf of myself, Senator Paul, Senator Rubio, Senator Toomey, and Senator McConnell, which will redirect the 14.5 billion federal dollars we spend on behalf of 11 million children living in poverty. 

     This is the way we would do it:  We would simply pin $1,300 in funds to each of those children, and let this money follow the child to the school they attend, any accredited school, public or private. 

     In a contentious Washington world this is a problem which seems to have a broad amount of agreement from the left and the right.  As I said, this $14.5 billion, which is appropriated expressly to help these 11 million children, isn't getting to them.  It is ending up in other places.  It is distributed by a complicated Federal formula which is generally based on the percentage or number of low-income children in a particular school district and the average per-pupil expenditure in the state. 

     What happens is the money largely follows the teachers' salaries.  The children in wealthier districts are usually taught by teachers who earn higher salaries.  The children in poor districts are usually taught by the teachers who earn lower salaries.  A lot of the Title I money ends up in the schools with more of the wealthier children instead of the schools with the poorer children. 

     Marguerite Roza, in a report by the Center for American Progress, which I think can be fairly described as a progressive think tank, explained: 

     The difference in actual school expenditures are often substantial because teachers' salaries are based on their experience and credits or degrees earned, and because high-poverty schools have many more less experienced, lower paid teachers and much more turnover than low-poverty schools.

     She offers Baltimore as an example: 

          When teachers at one school in a high-poverty neighborhood were paid an average of $37,618, at another school in the same district the average teacher's salary was $57,000.

     Assuming the same average number of teachers per school, say 20, the difference in dollars for the two schools is $387,640.  That is a lot of money per school.

     Under the federal formula, this is considered "comparable" or fair, which means the poor school is essentially stuck with newer, less expert teachers.  This is a system designed for the bureaucracy and the adults, not the students. 

     A different report by the Fordham Foundation, which I would call a center-right foundation, came to a similar conclusion.  It summed up its findings by saying: 

          All of these problems have a common root:  today, money does not follow children to the schools they attend according to their needs.  Instead, money flows on the basis of factors which have little to do with the needs of students, the resources required to educate them successfully, or the educational preferences of their parents.

     We have scholars from the Center for American Progress and Fordham Foundation coming to the same conclusion, largely because the title I money is distributed based on teachers' salaries and because very often the wealthier school districts pay teachers more.  We have significantly more title I money in a school with wealthier children than with poor children, even though the purpose of the $14.5 billion is to help those low-income children move from the back of the line to the front of the line. 

     This is a lot of money.  This is $1,300 per child. 

If you have a school full of children who bring $1,300 with them pinned on their jackets, they have a lot of money to help those children.  I think most of us believe that if we are trying to help children get to the starting line, children who might not have had as much help as other children, might not have had a book read to them by their parents, might not have eaten lunch that day, and who have other challenges associated with living in poverty, then we want to make sure we are spending every single dollar designated toward them for them. 

     Why isn't the right solution simply to say let's take these $1,300 per student and let it follow the student to the school they attend?  This means almost all the money would go to public schools.  We have 100,000 public schools in the country, but children are usually assigned to public schools.  Sometimes they may choose a public school.  This is a matter of state law.  This wouldn't interfere with that at all.  If the parent chooses instead for their child to go to a nonprofit or attend a private school, as long as that school is accredited, the $1,300 would follow the child to that school. 

     Some may say that sounds a little different than the way we do it now.  It is a little different, but the main difference is the money follows the child.  It is not different that we spend public money in private schools.  We already do that with title I money by providing services to children who go to private schools under a formula in the federal law.  We have long experience, dating back to World War II, with public money following college students to community colleges, to universities, and even after World War II to high schools.  The GI bill followed the veteran to the school they wanted to go to, whether it was the University of Tennessee, Notre Dame, Yeshiva, or any other school, as long as it was an accredited school. 

     Of course, in our system of education I think we would all agree that we have had the greatest success with higher education, for a variety of reasons.  I believe one of the reasons for this success is we have provided generous amounts of federal dollars that follow the student to the accredited college of their choice, public or private.  We call those Pell Grants.  We call those federal loans.  More than half of the college students in the country today go there with some government money that follows them to the academic institution of their choice. 

     By allowing title I money to do this, we could say the $1,300 scholarship is almost a Pell Grant for kids.  We could say we will attach it right to the child.  It follows the child to the school.  It is the most logical way to do that. 

     Some of my colleagues would like to fix this comparability problem by imposing a whole series of mandates on State and local school districts even though the federal fovernment only supplies about 10 percent of all the money spent on local elementary and secondary schools.  This would produce a minor revolution in the country, and it would be a gross overextension of federal power to say that just because we provide 10 percent of the money, and we don't give it effectively, we are going to make it our job to tell Tennessee, Georgia, New Mexico, or any other State how to spend it.

     The simple and logical way to solve the comparability problem that the left and the right agree on is to let the $14.5 billion follow each of the 11 million children living in poverty to the school they attend.  Then we could make sure that taxpayer dollars are being used in the most effective way to help these children have the single best opportunity they may have to get a leg up on reaching the American dream, which is through a good education in the best possible school. 

     I look forward to introducing an amendment to do this.  As the ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I look forward to working with Senator Paul, Senator Rubio, Senator Toomey, Senator McConnell, and, hopefully, a number of my Democratic colleagues to solve the misallocation of title I money. 

     Let's do the simple and logical thing:  Let the funds follow low-income children to the school they attend.