Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: "School Safety"

Posted on April 10, 2014


 I support the senator from Iowa and his request that this bill go to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.               

            In the Republican Conference, we talk a lot about the importance of taking legislation through committee so it can be amended and considered through the regular order.  This is certainly important legislation.  All of us would agree on that.     

            The senator from Pennsylvania and the senator from West Virginia deserve a lot of credit for bringing this terrible story to our attention and proposing we address it.  And I think we should.  But the appropriate way to do that here, is to take it to the committee of jurisdiction to be considered in a markup, amended, and see if anyone has a better idea.   

            My second reason for hoping this bill goes to the HELP committee is that I have my own idea. I think this bill poses an important question to the Senate about whether we want to constitute ourselves as a national school board. That is, in fact, what we would be doing if we passed it into law.     

            In our country there are 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools.  They all have a principal who is in charge of the employees in that school.     

            This bill is about determining what kind of criminal background check those school employees should have.  What is the principal supposed to do?  Doesn’t the principal have any responsibility for this?  Can the principal just say that this is the job of the United States Senate, so  I don't have to worry about that?     

            There are 14,000 local school boards across West Virginia, Tennessee, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and all of our other states.  What is the responsibility of these local school boards when it comes to determining the qualifications of their teachers or the health and safety of their students?  Do the members of the local school board say:  We don't have to worry about those questions too much because the U.S. Senate will determine for us what the qualifications for teaching will be or how we will keep students healthy and safe in our local public schools?     

            There are 50 governors of our states.  I used to be one of them, as was the distinguished senator from West Virginia.  I got pretty tired of people flying to Washington, D.C. thinking that they were the only ones who had any sense of responsibility for the public school students in Tennessee.  In fact, I felt like the more Washington, D.C. intruded into Tennessee by making decisions that we should be making for ourselves, the less responsible we felt for those decisions and the less effective we were at doing our jobs.


            I remember in the early 1990s there was a piece of legislation which whizzed through the Senate and the House just like this piece of legislation has been doing.  It was called the Gun-Free School Zones Act, and it came after a particularly terrible shooting at a school.  We still have those shootings today, and it wrenches our heart every time they happen.   

            So, after the shooting, the U.S. Congress said:  We will fix it.  The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional because it exceeded the authority of Congress under the Commerce Clause -- that in effect it wasn't Washington's job; it was the job of the states and local communities to determine the issue of gun possession around schools.  

            I submit that the safety of our schools is the job of the parents of those schools, of the principal in that school, of the community which supports that school, of the local school board, of the supporting organizations, and of the governor and the legislature of the state.  If they can pretend they can kick that responsibility up to Washington, I think that is wrong.  I do not think that is within our constitutional framework in the United States.  Those responsibilities belong locally.  

            The senator from Iowa and I have a terrific relationship and ideological differences on many occasions.  I spent the morning debating with him about whether his proposal for early childhood education would in effect create a national school board.  

            He basically made the same argument that is being made here.  He said:  If we are going to give states money from Washington for early childhood education, we have a responsibility to define how that money is spent, including the parameters for what the teachers' salaries should be.  

            So if we can define what criminal background checks ought to be for school employees in Maryville, TN, public schools, we can define what the teachers' salaries ought to be in the Maryville, TN, public schools.  If we can decide what the safety measures in the school ought to be, we can decide what the maximum size of classes ought to be.  We can decide what the length of the school day ought to be and what kind of vision and health screenings we ought to provide.

Those decisions are important for children as well.  Whether the children are fed properly is important as well.  Are we going to kick those decisions upstairs to the U.S. Senate and say:  You set the rules for that.  

            Physical activity programs.  The distinguished senator from Iowa has been a champion for more physical activity his whole career here.  He would like to set that as a goal from Washington.  I think that is the job of a local community.  

            Professional development for school staff.  If we make decisions about criminal background checks for staff, we can make decisions about their professional development as well.  

            How about academic standards and curriculum?  In the state of Tennessee and in many other states there has been a near rebellion over the so-called Common Core State standards.  The important issue is about how we raise standards for children who need to learn more to succeed. But the problem is that Washington got involved with the standards, and people in our state and many other states don't like national school boards and Washington control of public schools.

            So I think we should stop and think about this.  I would prefer to see the federal government in Washington act as an enabler of states and local school boards rather than a mandator.  

            I would like to see us take this terrific focus the senators from Pennsylvania and West Virginia have put on the importance of criminal background checks and the safety of our children by making it easier for states and local school boards to search a state criminal registry, a state-based child abuse and neglect registry, a fingerprint-based FBI criminal history, a search of the national sex offender registry.  

            Forty-six states already require all public school employees to go through some form of a background check.  Are we to say we know better than they do?  If so, what does that say about our entire structure of public education and whether we should just tell the 14,000 local school boards in the U.S. to disband?

            We don't need you to make decisions about the safety of the schools in your district.  We will do it in Washington.  We don't need you to make decisions about academic standards and curriculum.  We will do that here?  

            I think we in Congress should be enablers, not mandators.  I think we should take this powerful focus the two senators have put on criminal background checks for school employees, take it to the HELP committee, and put a spotlight on making it easier and more important for all 100,000 principals, all 14,000 local school boards, all 50 state governors to do it, help parents to be aroused, and put the spotlight where the spotlight ought to be.  

            If they want a gun-free school zone, put the spotlight on the school and the community around it.  If they want a safe school, put the spotlight on the school and the community around it.  If they want to have a criminal background check system to keep predators out of schools, put the spotlight on the principal, the school board, and the community around it.  That is the way to effectively do it.  That is the way to respect our federalist system of government and our constitutional framework.  That is the way to avoid creating a national school board.

            So I look forward to working with the senator from Iowa, the senator from West Virginia, and the senator from Pennsylvania.  This is an important issue.  I would like to see it become law.  But I would like for our government in Washington to be more of an enabler of local school boards and school principals than a mandator from Washington.



            I am willing to support holding a hearing on the bill, moving it rapidly through the HELP committee, and moving it back to the Senate floor.  I will make my argument in committee or on the floor, and I may win or I may lose.  But I have thought about the gun-free school zones act for more than 20 years, and I thought about it from the point of view of a parent and of a governor.  

            The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has conservative Republicans on one side and liberal Democrats on the other. I spend most of my days on the committee trying to argue my Democratic friends out of their good ideas that they want to impose on every local school district in America.  There is a moral imperative to have high academic standards for children.  There is a moral imperative to have physical education for children.  There is a moral imperative to have breakfast for children.  There is a moral imperative to help disabled children.  There is a moral imperative to do all these things.  We all feel that.  But just because we in Washington contribute 10 percent of the money spent on elementary and secondary education doesn't mean we should substitute our judgment for that of the local school board and the principal who is accountable to that community for the safety of each child in their school. 

           We ought to think about that before we start assuming these responsibilities because if we pass this bill into law, leave people to think that we solved the problem, and another problem happens, then who is going to be held accountable?  The local principal?  The local school board?  The governor?  No.  Maybe the Senate will be held accountable because we took it upon ourselves to say to the parents:  We have kept your child safe.  

            We should enable parents.  We should enable schools.  We should enable local school districts to create safe and effective schools with high standards.  We should give parents choices of schools with effective teachers, but we shouldn't mandate it or define it from Washington.  That is my argument, which I would like to be considered when we think about the extent to which we ought to say to a local school board or principal:  We are going to define for you what a criminal background check should consist of for the people you hire in your schools.     I pledge to work on it as rapidly as Senator Harkin can move it through the committee.  I will make my argument, and we will come to a conclusion.  

            I appreciate the senators from Pennsylvania and West Virginia putting a focus on such an important issue, and I look forward to a speedy conclusion to the debate and a passage of an appropriate bill on an important issue.  I just hope it enables instead of mandates.  


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