Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor speech: "Scholarships for Kids"

Posted on January 28, 2014

       This morning the senator from South Carolina, Mr. Scott, and I went to the American Enterprise Institute and outlined two bills that together represent the most ambitious proposals ever to enable states to use federal dollars to allow parents to find a better school for their child.  

            I would like to take a few minutes to talk about my proposal, which is called the “Scholarships For Kids Act,” and the context in which we find ourselves today as we look forward to the president's State of the Union address. I would also like to briefly mention the proposal of Senator Scott from South Carolina.  He has already introduced his bill.  He will be on the floor at another time to talk about it.  But these are big ideas.  Together they represent redirecting about 35 billion federal dollars that are now being spent through a series of programs and instead spend them in a way that better fits the age in which we find ourselves, an age in which the best federal investments can be made in things that enable Americans to do things for ourselves to make our lives better and happier and safer and longer.  

            Let me talk first about Scholarships For Kids.  I ask unanimous consent that an article describing the bill be printed following my remarks.  

            The legislation that I am introducing today would allow approximately 11 million new federal scholarships to follow low-income children to any school their parents choose as long as it is accredited.  It is not a federal mandate.  It would enable states to create those choice options.  But it would mean about a $2,100 scholarship of federal dollars on top of the money that states already spend on elementary and secondary education for each child.  

            The State of Tennessee, for example, spends nearly $8,000 per child on public elementary and secondary education.  This would be providing a $2,100 scholarship to the one-fifth of students who are low income and allowing that money to follow them to the school they attend.  

            Our country is united, not by race, but by a set of principles upon which we agree.  One of the most important of these is the principle of equal opportunity.  For me, equal opportunity means creating an environment where the largest number of people can begin at the same starting line.  I believe this is a real answer to the inequality in America that we hear so much about, giving children more opportunity to attend a better school.  

            The Scholarships For Kids Act will cost $24 billion a year.  It will be paid for by redirecting about 41 percent of all the dollars we now directly spend on federal elementary and secondary education programs.  About 90 percent of all of the spending on our elementary and secondary schools is state and local spending, and about 10 percent is federal spending.  This is 41 percent of that 10 percent.

            It includes all of the money the federal government spends on elementary and secondary education except money for children with disabilities -- and Senator Scott's legislation addresses that.  It does not touch the Student School Lunch Program.  It does not affect federal research in education, and it does not affect Impact Aid.  

            The whole purpose of federal aid to elementary and secondary education is to help low-income students.  But unfortunately, often the federal dollars are diverted to schools with wealthier students.  The left and the right both have noticed this and would like to change it.  

            Scholarships for Kids would benefit only children that fit the federal definition of "poverty" which is about one-fifth of all school children.  That is because it would pin the $2,100 scholarship to the blouse or the shirt of the child, and it would follow that child to the school the child attends.  

            Allowing federal dollars to follow students to a school has been a successful strategy in American education for more than 70 years.  Last year, $33 billion in federal Pell Grants and $106 billion in federal loans followed students to the public and private colleges of their choice.  Since the GI bill began in 1944, these vouchers -- that is what they are -- have helped to create a marketplace of about 6,000 autonomous institutions and a higher education system that is regarded by almost everyone as the best in the world.

            Our elementary and secondary education system is not the best in the world.  U.S. 15-year-olds rank 28th in science and 36th in math.  I believe one reason for this is that more than 93 percent of the dollars that we spend through the federal government for higher education follows students to the colleges of their choice, but federal dollars do not automatically follow students to the elementary or secondary school of their choice.  

            Instead, with our elementary schools and our middle schools and our high schools, money is sent directly to the schools.  Local government monopolies run most of those schools.  They tell most students exactly which school to attend.  There is little choice and no K-through-12 marketplace as there is in higher education.  Again, in higher education, you have 6,000 autonomous institutions.  You have generous amounts of federal dollars.  They can follow you to the college or university of your choice, whether it is public or private or nonprofit or for-profit, as long as it is accredited.  So students may go to Harvard, Yeshiva or Notre Dame, or to Nashville’s Auto Diesel College or to the University of Tennessee or to the community college nearby.      

            The former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, often wrote that American creativity has flourished during "fertile verges,"  times when Americans became more self-aware and creative.  

            In his book, "Breakout," Newt Gingrich argues that society is on the edge of such an era, the Internet age, an age where everything will change, like everything changed at the time of the new internal combustion engine.  

            Newt Gingrich in his book cites computer handbook writer Tim O'Reilly for his suggestion about how the Internet could transform government.  Here is how Tim O'Reilly says we ought to do our job as we try to help use the government to help Americans during this period of time:  

            “The best way for government to operate is to figure out what kinds of things are enablers of society and make investments in those things.  The same way that Apple figured out, "If we turn the IPhone into a platform, outside developers will bring hundreds of thousands of applications to the table."

            Already 16 states have begun a variety of innovative programs supporting private school choice.  Private organizations in many parts of our country supplement these efforts.  Scholarships for Kids, allowing $2,100 federal scholarships to follow 11 million children, would enable other school choice innovations in the same way that developers rushed to provide applications for the iPhone platform.  

            Senator Tim Scott has proposed what he calls the CHOICE Act.  It would allow 11 billion other federal dollars that the federal government now spends through programs for children with disabilities to follow these 6 million children to the schools their parents believe provide the best services.

            So there might be a child in Tennessee or Wisconsin or South Carolina who is eligible for both -- the Scholarship For Kids, because he or she comes from a family that fits the federal poverty definition.  So there is $2,100.  Then, if that child is also disabled, the child might be eligible for a scholarship under the CHOICE Act of several thousand dollars.  That would then be in addition to the amount of money that South Carolina, let's say, spends on education per child, which is in the neighborhood of $9,000.  

            So to take the case of Tennessee again, $8,000 or so for the state, $2,100 more federal dollars through Scholarship For Kids, a few more thousand dollars, depending upon circumstances, for the scholarship under Senator Scott's proposal, and you have a significant amount of money that a parent could use to follow a child to the school that helps that child succeed.  

            Especially in the case of children with disabilities, that seems to make so much good sense to me.  Senator Scott tells a poignant story of a young girl in South Carolina who was in a kindergarten.  She had Down syndrome.  She was in a kindergarten that helped her succeed.  But then her parents moved.  They had to fight for a year to get her new school to treat her in a mainstream way.  Then they realized that the school they had been fighting for a year was the one they were counting on.  

            Why not let that family take the $13,000, $14,000, $15,000 or $16,000 for that child with Down syndrome, pick a school that treasures that child, and let the money follow the child to the school the child attends?

            So a student with a disability and from a low-income family would benefit under both programs.  As I said when I began my remarks, taken together with Senator Scott's proposal, Scholarships for Kids constitutes the most ambitious proposal ever to use existing federal dollars to enable states to expand school choice.  

            Importantly, this is not a federal mandate.  Washington is full of politicians who fly an hour or an hour-and-a-half from their home town, and they get here and think they have suddenly gotten smarter.  They have a good idea and they say:  Oh, let's apply that in Wisconsin and in Tennessee and in South Carolina.  I try not to do that.  I am a very strong believer, for example, in teacher evaluations.  I led the fight for teacher evaluations as governor of Tennessee 30 years ago.  We were the first state to do it.  When I came to Washington people said:  Well then, you will want to make everybody do that?  My answer was no, I will not.  States have the opportunity to be right, and they have the opportunity to be wrong.  

            The last thing Tennessee needs is the federal government peering over the shoulders of communities and school districts and legislators and governors and school boards who are trying to work out the very difficult problem of teacher evaluations.  It is the holy grail of education reform as far as I am concerned, but it should not be mandated from Washington.

            I very much believe in school choice, but it should not be mandated from Washington.  So under Scholarships for Kids, states still would govern pupil assignments, deciding, for example, whether parents could choose private schools.  

            When I was secretary of education years ago, Milwaukee was in the midst of a major program to try to give low-income parents more choice of schools, including private schools.  So along with President George H. W.  Bush, we proposed what we called a GI bill for kids to allow Milwaukee and Wisconsin to do it if they wished to do it.  But it did not impose what we thought was a good idea from Washington.  Under Scholarships for Kids, schools that parents chose for their child with their $2,100 scholarship would have to be accredited.  Federal civil rights rules would apply.  My proposal does not affect school lunches.  There also is an independent evaluation after 5 years so that Congress can assess the effectiveness of the new tool for innovation.

            In remarks that Senator Scott and I made this morning, the issue of private schools came up, which always does when we talk about expanding school choice.  But in this case, we are not necessarily talking about private schools.  Most schools are public schools.  I would assume that most of these $2,100 scholarships would follow students to the school they attend, which would be a public school.  

            So if a state chose to create a program whereby its low-income citizens could choose a private school, as long as it was accredited, that would be appropriate under the law.  Why shouldn’t  a low-income family have the same opportunities for a better school for its child that a wealthier family, who may move to a different part of town or may be able to afford a private school, does?  

            The idea of allowing dollars to follow students to the school of their choice has not exclusively been an idea of the left or of the right in our country.  In the late 1960s, the most conspicuous proposal for school choice was from Ted Sizer, then Harvard University’s education dean.  He suggested a $5,000 scholarship in his poor children's bill of rights.  That $5,000 scholarship would be worth two or three times as much today.  

            In 1992, when I was the U.S. secretary of education, President George H. W. Bush proposed a GI bill for kids, a half-billion federal pilot program for States creating school choice opportunities.  Yet despite its success in higher education, and despite the fact that it has had powerful advocates on both the left and the right, the word "voucher" remains a bad word among most of the kindergarten-through-12th-grade education establishment, and the idea has not spread widely.  Equal opportunity in America should mean that everyone, as much as possible, has the same starting line.  

            During this week celebrating school choice, there would be no better way to help children move up from the back of the line than by allowing states to use federal dollars to create 11 million opportunities to choose a better school.  

            If I may conclude with a word about the context in which we find ourselves today, Senator Scott and I made our remarks today at American Enterprise Institute.  I am speaking on the floor of the Senate on a very important day in our country's history.  It is not only National School Choice Week, but it is the day the President of the United States makes his annual state of the Union address.  Every president has done that except two -- as the Senate historian told us today -- and those two died before it was time to make the address, so it is a tradition that goes back to the beginning of the country.  We will all go over to the House of Representatives, listen carefully, and the country will watch to listen to what the president has to say.

            We are told the issue the president will address is the one of income inequality.  If that is what he does, that is certainly an appropriate issue for any American president.  Because if equal opportunity is central to the American character, so is the idea of the American dream, the idea that anything is possible, that anyone can go from the back to the front of the line with hard work; and equal opportunity, therefore, helps to create a starting line from which we move.

            If the president makes that proposal, I think we know the kind of agenda we are likely to hear.  It will have to do with a higher minimum wage that would actually cost jobs.  It will have to do with more compensation for perpetual unemployment.  It will have to do with canceling more health insurance policies, which is what Obamacare will be doing in 2014 -- much more so than it did in 2013.  

            There is another agenda, another picture, another vision of how we can help the largest number of Americans realize the American dream; that is, more jobs, more job training, and more choices for low-income parents of better schools for their children so they can get a better job.  

            Instead of a higher minimum wage, which actually reduces the number of jobs, we would liberate the free enterprise system of the wet blanket of Obamacare, other Obama rules and regulations, and create many more jobs with good wages.  Instead of more compensation for long-term unemployment, we would say let's have more job training so they can take one of these good new jobs we propose to create.

            Then, instead of directing the money to a model that hasn't worked as well over the last 70 years, let us take the federal dollars we are now spending on elementary and secondary education and let them follow low-income children and disabled children to the schools of their parents' choice, so they have an opportunity to go to a better school, just as children who aren't disabled and with parents who have more money do.

            We will be arguing that a better agenda for income equality to realize the American dream, to help Americans move from the back to the front of the line, is more jobs, more job opportunities, and more choices of better schools for low-income children.  That agenda is especially right for the age we are in.  

            I mentioned the discussion Daniel Boorstin had about America's fertile verges, Newt Gingrich's new book, and the suggestion by the computer programmer that the best way for government to operate is not with Washington mandates or Washington programs but to spend money on things that enable each of us as Americans to do things for ourselves -- to live a happier life, to live a better life, to live a wealthier life, to live a safer life.  

            I hope in the remarks I have made today that I have done that, because we have 70 years of experience with such programs in education.  I would argue there may be no more successful social program in American history than the GI bill for veterans.  It began 70 years ago in 1944.  It did not send money to the University of Chicago, Tennessee, Michigan, and Harvard.  It followed the soldier, the airman, and the Navy veteran to the college of his or her choice.  We began that practice in 1944.  We continue it with the Pell grants today.  We continue it with the student loans today.  Why should we not follow it with the federal dollars we spend for elementary and secondary education?  

            If federal dollars following students to the colleges of their choice helped to produce the finest higher education system in the world, why should we not allow states to try to create the best schools in the world for our children -- especially our low-income children?  

            I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will recognize this isn't the proposal of the left or the right.  I don't know many Democrats who want to get rid of Pell grants or student loans.  They are vouchers, pure and simple, that have lasted for 70 years and may be the most successful social program we have.  Why not allow states in this Internet age to take the federal dollars we are already spending for low-income children and make sure the money gets directly to them -- and for disabled children, and make sure it goes to directly to them -- and give their parents an opportunity to exercise the same kinds of decisions wealthier parents do?  They would say:  What school would be the best school for my child?

            Would that not be a way to help a young American get a leg up on moving to the same starting line that children from wealthier families have -- and maybe even a chance to move to the head of the line?  

            I hope my colleagues and American people will take a good look at the Scholarships for Kids Act, and Senator Scott's CHOICE Act.  Together they constitute the most ambitious proposal ever to use existing federal dollars to enable states, and to allow parents -- especially low-income parents -- to choose a better school for their child.  There is no better way to create opportunity in America.

 

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