Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - Tribute to Claiborne Pell

Posted on January 6, 2009

Mr. President, on January 1, Claiborne Pell died. Claiborne Pell was the Senator from Rhode Island, the longest serving Senator from that State, a Senator whose name is known by most college students and by most people who care about education in America because he was largely responsible for helping to create in 1973 what we now call the Pell grant, a Federal scholarship that follows students to the college of their choice. It was originally called the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, but Pell grant is a lot easier to say. It is a remarkable success in our country. He deserves to be remembered for that success. I knew him as a staff member when I came here with Senator Howard Baker, who was here just a few hours ago as we were sworn in. That was 42 years ago. I knew him as Education Secretary in 1991 and 1992. The American higher education system is, at a time when we worry about some of our institutions, one of our great secret weapons in America, one of our great strengths. One reason for that is because of Federal grants and loans. It all started not with the Pell grant but just at the end of World War II with the GI bill for veterans. It was a college scholarship. Actually, it was an educational scholarship the veterans could spend wherever they wished, and the "wherever they wished" point is the important point because many of those men and some women who came back from World War II used their GI bill money to go to high school. Some used it to go to college in other countries of the world. No one said you can't go to the University of Delaware or you must go to Notre Dame or you can't go to Brown University or you can't go to a Historically Black College. The GI bill for veterans followed the student to the college of that student's choice. It was not universally popular. The president of the University of Chicago, Mr. Hutchins, said at the time that it would create a campus full of hobos because college at that time was for a very limited number of Americans. At the end of World War II, only 5 percent of Americans 25 and older had completed at least 4 years of college. But today, according to the most recent figures, that figure is six times that. Nearly 30 percent of Americans have completed 4 years of college. First, the GI bill after World War II, then the Pell grant in 1973, then the various loans the Federal Government allows for students. So today, 60 percent of the men and women who go to American colleges and universities have a Federal grant or Federal loan to help them pay for college. It is never easy to afford college. The average tuition at a 4-year private school is about $25,000 today, and you add to that your living expenses. It is important to remember that an average tuition at a 4-year public university is about $6,500, and the average tuition and fees for community colleges is $2,400. So Senator Pell, by his leadership and his work as chairman of the Education Subcommittee of our Health, Education, and Labor Committee, helped add to the legacy of the GI bill for veterans and helped make it possible for so many Americans to go to college. I wish to conclude my remarks and honor Senator Pell with a thought about our future. I have always wondered why if the Pell grant was such a good idea for colleges, why don't we try it for kindergarten through the 12th grade. We seem to overlook the fact that American students can choose their college and the money follows the student to the college. It might be Nashville Auto Diesel College. It might be Harvard University. But we don't give the money to the school, we give it to the student to decide where to go. That was a happy accident that happened with the GI bill, and it was a happy accident that happened in 1973. I remember saying to one distinguished Member of this body: You know, the Pell grant is a voucher. This Senator recoiled from that and said: I am opposed to vouchers. I said: But you are not opposed to the Pell grant, are you? And she said: Well, no, that is different. I would argue that is not different at all. What we have done in kindergarten to 12th grade is give the money directly to institutions, and we, in that sense, create local educational monopolies and limit the amount of competition in choice. We can look at our experience with higher education and see how it is generally considered to be by far the best in the world. We not only have the best colleges and universities in the world, we have almost all of them. Then we look at our system of kindergarten through the 12th grade. The Presiding Officer has been Governor of his State. He worked hard on charter schools. We have all tried many different ideas to try to improve kindergarten through 12th grade, but we have never quite seemed to be able to make it as effective as our success with higher education. That is why in 2004 I suggested on the Senate floor that we try the idea of a Pell grant for kids. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record following my remarks the remarks I made on the Senate floor on May 17, 2004, about Pell grants for kids. The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered. Mr. President, to summarize them, they were simply this: Why not look to the example of our higher education system and try it with kindergarten through the 12th grade? The Pell grants for kids I proposed was to give every single child from a middle- or low-income family a $500 scholarship that would follow them to the school or other accredited academic program of their choice. These would be new Federal dollars so no district would see its share of money from Washington cut, and it would give less wealthy families many of the same choices that families with money already have. As one example, across our country we see art and music lessons cut in schools. As budgets get tight, they are the first things that are cut. The kids who go to the schools from the areas that have less money from property taxes and less money from sales taxes are not able to have the art and music courses. If they had a $500 Pell grant for kids, they might take it to an afterschool program for art or afterschool program for music, or the parents might get together and go to the school the children attend and say: Look, there are 20 of us with these $500 Pell grants. We will all come here if you hire an art teacher part time or a music teacher part time. It would give parents some consumer power, it would give children opportunities, and it would give schools with less money more money. This is an idea I hope we can seriously consider as we look ahead to the future of American public education. We should recognize that there are a great many school districts with children who have less money and less of a tax base than others and that we have had a wonderful example with the GI bill for veterans and with Pell grants in colleges and universities. So why not try it in a limited way to see if it would help improve opportunity and education in kindergarten through the 12th grade as it has in college. My main purpose today is to honor Claiborne Pell. He served 36 years with distinction. He contributed greatly to the opportunities of education in America. He did it with dignity, and he did it with intelligence. We respect him, we miss him, and we honor his legacy. I yield the floor.