Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks Of Sen. Alexander - D.C. School Choice

Posted on September 30, 2003

I congratulate the Senator from New Hampshire for his remarks and for his leadership on education, especially for his leadership on this issue where he has shown his characteristic persistence over the years, and I hope he succeeds. Listening to him talk about the children today creates a whole new way of thinking about this. I have noticed in education meetings I have attended — and I have been going to them now for a good while - people like the Senator from New Hampshire and I get up and make a speech, but if we sit down and invite a child to stand up and say something, it changes the whole nature of the meeting because it puts in perspective what we are talking about. I am glad the Senator talked about the children who are waiting in line for this opportunity to go to a better school because that is what we are talking about. All we are talking about is giving 7,500 of Federal dollars, new dollars — not taken from any other school but new dollars — to about 2,000 poor families, disadvantaged families in the Washington, DC, our Nation's Capital, families whose child is in an underperforming school, and giving them a chance to go to another school. That is what we are talking about. Especially since September 11, we have talked a lot about the American character. The American character has many aspects, but one aspect of our country is that we dream great dreams, and we are not ashamed of doing that. We say things like all men are created equal. We say things like President Kennedy said one time, that we will pay any price and bear any burden to defend freedom anywhere in this world. We say things like leave no child behind. We say things like anything is possible because that is our goal. Europeans and others think we are a little goofy when we say things like that because they will say obviously we are going to leave some child behind, obviously we are not going to defend freedom everywhere in the world, obviously not every man is created equal. The answer is we know that, but our goal is the greater goal. We really want to help every child succeed. We really want to defend freedom wherever we can. We really want every American to be equal, and we are a work in progress toward those goals. That is what makes this such a remarkable country. One of the greatest of our challenges is to meet the goal of anything is possible — and I was thinking about those children — one of the surest tickets towards success in America, in fact the surest ticket, is a good education. We cannot legislate a good family. Families are varied. But if a child has a great education, that child has a much better chance, to not be left behind but to succeed. So one would think we would be bending over backwards, falling all over ourselves, to identify the children in America who are disadvantaged, who are not as likely to have a good education, and giving them a chance too. That is what one would think we would all be doing. Is that not what we are talking about today? Are we not talking about identifying a couple of thousand kids who are disadvantaged, going to schools that are not working, and giving them a chance to go to a good school? What is wrong with that? I would think it would be embarrassing for our friends on the other side of the aisle. They have spent a lot of time talking about helping disadvantaged Americans. How can they say it is good for us Senators, our families, but we do not want to give these children that chance? In the next few minutes, I will take three or four issues that have come up in the debate, as I have listened to it, and discuss them. The first one was: When I listened to the distinguished Senator from Illinois the other day, one of the better debaters in the Senate, as described by Senator DeWine. The Senator from Illinois said this, and I wrote it down: This is a calamity. This will be the first diversion of Federal funds to private schools in our history, the first diversion of Federal funds to private schools. I wanted to ask the Senator then, and I will ask today, if I may, I wonder if he has ever heard of the University of Loyola or DePaul or Northwestern or Saint Xavier or Wheaton College or Illinois Wesley? Those are all private schools, private colleges, in the State of Illinois, and at least half the students at all of those schools and colleges attend those colleges with a Federal grant or loan to help pay for college. In the case of the Pell grant, the Federal grant, which may follow them to Loyola, DePaul, Northwestern, or Saint Xavier, that is a Federal voucher that follows them to the college of their choice. Now, that is not just true in Illinois. It would be true at Fisk University in Nashville. It would be true at Brigham Young out West. It would be true at Yeshiva. As long as the college is accredited, whether it is private or parochial. This has been true from the beginning of the GI bill for veterans, over the last 60 years, our country has allowed Federal dollars to follow students to a school of their choice. Someone might say I am mixing things up; I am mixing up a college with a high school. I do not think that is a real difference. At the University of Tennessee, we have a school of law, as well as a school of architecture. Those are schools. They are educational institutions. For 60 years Federal dollars have followed students to the school of their choice. What has been our experience with that program? Most people who look at the Federal Government think the GI bill for veterans and the Federal scholarships and loans programs have been the most successful social legislation in the history of our country. Maybe Social Security stands up there with it. But it is hard to think of legislation that has created more opportunity than the GI bill for veterans and the Federal Pell grants and the Stafford loans that help people go to college. No one says you have to go to the University of Tennessee or Vanderbilt or the University of Rhode Island or any particular school. You choose. I remember when I was president of the University of Tennessee, I was sitting there during the last week of August when we would have about 30,000 students, coming to our school. No one made them go there, they had to choose to go there, and the money followed them to the school. It never occurred to me to come to Washington and argue to the Senate, Please don't allow any of these students to go to Vanderbilt or to Fisk University because it might take money away from our school. We saw the value of giving Americans choices of colleges and universities. We saw what it had done for them. We saw what it did for the colleges and universities of this country, what it specifically did for the public colleges and universities, such as the University of Tennessee. Let's just look at the record. In 1945, maybe 8 or 10 percent of Americans had a college degree. Mr. President, 80 percent of the higher education students in America at the end of World War II were in private colleges and universities. In fact, when the GI bill for veterans came along, President Hutchins of the University of Chicago was appalled by the idea. He said hoboes would be coming to his distinguished university, the University of Chicago. At that time, at the end of World War II, 20 percent of students attended public university. What is it today? Today it is just reversed: 80 percent of students who attend higher education in America go to public colleges and universities, 20 percent go to private. So the effect of the GI bill for veterans, this Federal voucher that followed students to the school of their choice in higher education, which has been the law of our land since right after World War II, has not only created great opportunity, the effect of it has been to create the greatest system of colleges and universities in America. The Federal Government helped to fund that. We don't have just some of the best colleges and universities, we have almost all of them. And the Federal voucher for higher education has been a major source of that. So that was a really good idea. It is rarely our experience in education to have such a close analogy, to have a 60-year experiment with a Federal voucher for colleges that has helped create the best colleges in the world. The question might be; If it did that over 60 years, why wouldn't we at least try it to see if it created the best schools in the world? We have tried it also before the first grade. We have a child care voucher, which has been the law since 1990. It follows little children to the child care program of their parents' choice. So we would trust a single mom with the responsibility. She might be poor, she might not be very well educated herself, some might even say she=s not capable of making a good judgment for her children, but we trust her to choose the daycare program for her child, and the Federal voucher follows the child to the daycare program. It could be public, private, or religious. We permit her to enroll in a community college or university in order to advance herself, and a Federal voucher follows her to a community college. But we say somehow there is something wrong with allowing her to make a decision about where her child goes to school from the 1st grade to the 12th grade. Of course, we don't have that problem with those who are better off — Senators, for example. We assume we are really super parents and we know a lot about schools and we are trusted to make choices. We are allowed to move to another part of town so our child will go to this school instead of that school, and every real estate agent in America will tell you that parents make moves in housing based upon where their child will go to school. That is No. 1 for them. They have the money to do it. They are free to do it. But the disadvantaged family is not free to do it. I wonder what would happen if we were to pass a law that would be consistent with our friends on the other side of the aisle — most of them; there are some who agree with us — and just say there should be no choice to anybody; let's be fair to the rich as well as the poor. It sounds like rhetoric that might be coming from over there. Let's say no choice for school, the Government will tell you, no matter how much money you have, exactly where your child goes to school, and you may not take that child anywhere else. The Government will decide. Since your taking your child and your money to a Catholic school or private school which might hurt a public school, therefore you are not allowed to go to a Catholic school or you are not allowed to go to a private school. In effect, that is what we are telling poor families in America. We are telling them: Because you are poor, you have no choice. Let's say it to the rich folks, too. Let's make it equal. Nobody has any choice. That will help the public schools. That wouldn't help the public schools. That is the way the Soviet Union used to operate, one car for everybody, and by the time they got through, the car would barely run. Choice is an essential part of the American system. So, for the Senator from Illinois to stand up and say this is the first diversion of Federal funds to schools is just flat wrong. In fact, he is ignoring the most successful piece of Federal social legislation we have ever had, which for 60 years has helped create the best colleges in the world. My question would be, Why not try it with at least 2,000 children who are poor, going to underperforming schools in Washington, DC, and let's see what happens? Maybe it creates a better school. There is another little historical fact that maybe the Senator from Illinois missed as well. Right after World War II, a lot of the returning GIs didn't have a high school degree. Only maybe 5 percent of them even had a college degree at the time. So what did they do with the GI bill? They took it to high schools. There were thousands of returning GIs after World War II who took their GI bill to the Catholic high schools of America. The sky didn't fall. A lot of them ended up being among the most successful leaders in our country. A second comment I would like to make is sometimes I hear that this is a Republican idea, or a conservative idea. It really doesn't sound like a Republican idea. Republicans are characterized sometimes by not being as interested in the disadvantaged, by not being willing to spend more money, by not wanting to talk about education. I am glad that we are, in this case. But this ought to be a bipartisan idea. I am so glad to see the Senator from California has made this discussion a bipartisan idea because it deserves to be. Let me go back in a little history and suggest how this idea has not always been a Republican or conservative idea. Not long ago, someone gave me an article from the 1968 August issue of Psychology Today. The article was entitled "A Proposal For A Poor Children's Bill of Rights." The proposal was this: To give a Federal coupon to perhaps up to 50 percent of American children, through their parents, to be spent at any school. Half the American children would get a Federal coupon, they called it — voucher, scholarship — to be spent at any school — public, private, religious. By doing so, the authors of this proposal wrote, we might both create significant competition among the schools serving the poor — thus improving the school — and meet, in an equitable way, the extra cost of teaching the children of the poor. The idea here was to provide money on top of what is already being spent, because educating poor children costs more. The authors were not the chairman of the Republic National Committee but a young man named Theodore Sizer, along with Phillip Whitten. Ted Sizer, of course, is today one of America's most respected and pioneering educators. He was dean of the College of Education at Brown University and a leader of the Coalition of Essential Schools. He has been given about every major award American educators can give anyone, and 1968 was a long time ago. Lyndon Johnson was President. "Power of the people" was the battle cry. Sizer and Whitten went back much earlier than that. They said this: The idea of such tuition grants is not new. For almost two centuries various proposals for the idea have come from such figures as Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, John Stewart Mill, and more recently Milton Friedman. Its appeal bridges ideological differences. Yet it had never been tried. Quite possibly because the need for it has never been so demonstrably critical as now. This was in 1968. The authors quoted, Mario Santini of the Ford Foundation — hardly a right-wing organization — who spoke of: ...a parent's lobby with unprecedented motivation with a tangible grasp on the destiny of their children. The ability to control their own destinies definitely will instill in poor people a necessary pride and dignity of which they have been cheated. Maybe those are the 7,000 parents in the District who are lined up waiting for the other side of the aisle to quit filibustering and release $7,500 for each of those children so they can go to a good school. What about the argument that this poor children's bill of rights might destroy the public schools? Here is what Mr. Sizer and Mr. Whitten said in 1969: Those who would argue that our proposal would destroy the public schools raise a false issue. A system of public schools which destroys rather than develops positive human potential now exists. It is not in the public interest, and a system which blames its society while it quietly acquiesces in and inadvertently perpetuates the various injustices it blames for its inefficiency is not in the public interest. If the system cannot fulfill its responsibilities, it doesn't deserve to survive. That is their word. But if the public schools serve, they will prosper. Just as our public colleges and universities have with students who bring a voucher to those schools. Those are my words. Since 1987, we have watched in amazement how rapidly the rest of the world is seeking to emulate the American way of life. Everywhere in the world, freedom and choice and opportunity have become the principles upon which are built the answers to the most basic human questions. Around the world, nothing is in as much disfavor as government monopoly of important services. Yet that is what the other side is defending today. I think it is important, as we go through this debate, always to remember exactly what we are talking about. Those in opposition have such poor reasons for opposition that they invent all sorts of complications and make it sound exceedingly impossible. We are talking about this: Spending $40 million for students in the District of Columbia. The bill the Senate is debating today appropriates $13 million for scholarships for low-income children in underperforming public schools to go to any accredited school - $13 million dollars for DC public charter schools and $13 million new dollars for the DC public schools. The Senator from New Hampshire went into great detail on this. Let me summarize a couple of points. In addition to the fact that the District of Columbia is different - and there would be State money, if it were Rhode Island, or West Virginia, or Tennessee, that we would be spending - but here we are spending $11,000 per student, which is among the highest in the country in the public schools. Class size is among the lowest, yet reading scores continue to be at or near the bottom of every national assessment. Sixty-nine percent of fourth graders are reading below basic level. That means 7 out of 10 fourth graders can't read. That means all educators and parents know that by the third grade, if they can't read, they are off on a track that goes anywhere but along with the American dream that anything is possible. DC students ranked last in the Nation in both SAT and ACT scores last year. Forty-two percent drop out of school. Those are some of the statistics here in the District. Finally, I would like to call attention to an article by William Raspberry that appeared on Monday, September 29 — yesterday — in the Washington Post. Mr. Raspberry concludes his article with this question: If federally funded vouchers help a few hundred more local students to find such an environment, how bad is that? He was writing about the debate here in the District to create an academic high school 20 years ago. Some people said: Well, that will help some children and not others. Mr. Raspberry thinks it will help some children, and that will be good, and maybe that will help us find a way to help others. That is the basic essence of his article today. It is a good thing to use to conclude a discussion about the District of Columbia because it shows we all know that the children of the District of Columbia can succeed, the schools can succeed. This is the way he describes Washington's academic high school: By the way, Washington's academic high school — Benjamin Banneker — is not merely an established fact these days; it is an important source of pride for both the school system and the city. It was a Banneker student who a few years back scored a perfect 1600 on her SATs. It was a Banneker team that scored a record-setting total on the TV program "It's Academic." Banneker's students are smart, but not necessarily that much smarter than students elsewhere in the city. What they have is an atmosphere where academic striving is the norm, where no one calls them "nerds" or "brainiacs" or accuses them of acting "white." The recent result of Leave No Child Behind shows us something we already know — that we have a lot of good schools in America. But even in many of our better schools, there are some children — almost all disadvantaged and many of them minority kids — who are not learning what they need to know, all over America, and it starts right here in the Nation's Capital. We have tried about everything. We tried charter schools. We tried more money. We tried smaller classes. There are a lot of wonderful people working hard. What this debate is about is: Should we not take the idea which helped create the best colleges and universities in the world and try it here in the District? Should we not help those 7,000 families standing in line out there hoping anything is possible for their child? Why not give 2,000 of them $7,500 a year and let them go to a better school and have a brighter future? If we learn something about that which teaches us something about what to do about American education that will improve and help these disadvantaged children, so much the better. How embarrassing it must be to stand up and argue against giving $7,500 to 2,000 children in the Nation's Capital who deserve that brighter future. I hope this becomes an increasingly bipartisan discussion. The Senator from California has offered an amendment which improves the legislation. Not every Republican supports this. Not every Democratic Senator opposes it. I hope over time we will see that choice as an essential part of the American system. We have had it for 60 years in our colleges. We have had it for 12 years in the Child Care Program. Every family with money has it. Why not offer it to the disadvantaged, the poor families of America, starting with 2,000 families in the District of Columbia in this bill? Thank you, Mr. President.