Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) "Teacher Incentive Fund"

Posted on February 8, 2007

Mr. President, I wish to speak about a casualty of the budget process. It is a very disheartening development, and I hope it is an oversight, not the first symbol of the new Democratic Congress's education agenda because I don't think it should be, and I cannot believe that it would be. I don't believe that the Senator from Massachusetts, the Senator from Iowa, the Senator from Rhode Island, and others who care about education would agree that killing the Teacher Incentive Fund should be held up and said here is the way the Democrats plan to approach education. But, in fact, that is what came over from the House of Representatives. What they did was kill a Federal program, passed in a bipartisan way in No Child Left Behind called the Teacher Incentive Fund. They reduced the Teacher Incentive Fund from $100 million a year to $200,000 in this current year. What does the program do? It helps reward outstanding teachers and principals of children who attend low-income, poor-performing schools. That is what it does. This cut threatens a crucial effort to improve the Memphis schools and also other schools all across our country in 16 major cities and States. It is a disheartening development and one I hope will change. The loudest criticism I hear of the No Child Left Behind bill is it is not properly funded. What kind of response is it to say we are going to knock $100 million out of the most important program that helps to train teachers and principals to help low-income children in poor-performing schools succeed? That doesn't make much sense to me. So I have submitted an amendment--it is on file--which would increase the teacher incentive fund from $200,000 this year to $99 million, which is the level that was approved in the appropriations bill. It is also the level President Bush requested for the current year. The funding comes out of funds available under the education title of the Labor, HHS, Education section of the joint funding resolution. Unlike a traditional appropriations bill, the resolution doesn't fully allocate all of the dollars under the education title. So as a result, I have been advised by the Legislative Counsel's Office that our amendment doesn't need an offset. I will add that President Bush, in the budget we received this week, has asked for $200 million for next year. So this would permit us to do what was intended to be done by the No Child Left Behind bill. Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, let me mention a few of the details of the Teacher Incentive Fund, so that we can understand what happened in the House of Representatives. The Democratic majority in the House reduced the teacher incentive fund from $99 million to $200,000. The proposed cut jeopardizes 5-year grants that were made to 16 grantees, largely serving big-city schools and low-income students with low academic achievement. The cut will take away funds from Chicago, Denver, Memphis, Houston, Dallas, and Philadelphia. The proposed cut will take away funds from State programs in New Mexico and South Carolina. Many of these programs were developed in full consultation with teachers and principals and with their unions. As an example, Philadelphia's grant application was written and endorsed by the local teachers union. So I am trying to figure out who is against this? It would not be the teachers, principals, or the districts. Neither Democrats nor Republicans. So how did it get cut from $100 million to $200,000? One of the most critical problems we have to solve today is how to retain outstanding teachers and principals. The more we understand about low-performing schools, the more we understand that, except for the parent, the most important people in that child's ability to succeed are the teacher and the principal. The quality of the teacher and the quality of the school leaders are the most important factors. The elimination of funding, as has been done by the joint funding resolution, could have a significant impact upon the Teacher Incentive Fund. As a result, for example, of the joint funding resolution, the Department of Education has already decided that they will have to delay the national evaluation of the Teacher Incentive Fund until 2008. So we have delayed, for a year, helping these children be exposed to teachers and principals who have more capacity, and we won't learn anything from that evaluation for another extra year. The proposed cut in funding in the current year will undermine the current grant competition that is going on. Applications are due on February 12, 2007. So say you are sitting in Providence, Knoxville or San Francisco, and you are in the midst of an application to bring in New Leaders for New Schools or some other group, they say to the school district: OK, we will train all your teachers, send them to the Wharton School in the summer and work with them for a year, and on a continuing basis we will help these principals and teachers; we will help the principals become better school leaders. But then the New Leaders for New Schools will say you have to give the principal some autonomy, let them hire and fire the best teachers, let them make decisions. So there is this alliance. In many cases, the teachers union is involved, as in the Philadelphia case. They make concessions. So everybody is working together to try to say: What can we do to help these low-performing schools succeed? Today, in a roundtable we had about No Child Left Behind, I suggested we are not talking about No Child Left Behind in the correct way. We are catching people doing things wrong instead of catching people doing things right. The truth of the matter is that across our country we have about 100,000 schools, more or less, and in about 75 percent of those schools, they are succeeding in what we call adequate yearly progress. Those schools are succeeding in adequate yearly progress. Now, those schools, I would say, are high-achieving schools. What we find is most of the schools I would call achieving schools. Any school that has succeeded in No Child Left Behind for a couple of years I would call a highest achieving school. One which has succeeded for 1 year would be a high-achieving school. One with only one subgroup of children who don't quite make the standards, I would call that an achieving school. So we have mainly 15, 20 percent of our schools where we need to go to work and do things differently. These children can succeed. Memphis has a large number of low-performing schools, as we call them, but it is not because the children cannot learn. I was there during spring break last year at one of the new public charter schools in Memphis. They go to school early in the morning and leave at 5 in the afternoon. They were in AP biology courses in the 10th grade. They can all learn. They needed extra help in a different way, and the difference it has made there starts with a good school leader and an excellent teacher. Memphis plans to take this money from the Teacher Incentive Fund and take every single one of its principals through this year-long training, the summer programs, the continuing education, and then Memphis decided to give those teachers autonomy. So that is what we are killing when we kill this program, not just in Memphis, but in many other school districts. The northern New Mexico network, the DC public schools, the Chicago public schools, Denver, Mare Island Technology Academy in California, Houston, Guilford County, NC, Alaska, the whole State of South Carolina, a couple of districts in Texas--they are all in the middle of this. They are making applications for more. They expect these to be 5-year grants. They are doing what we asked them to do, and then we come along and kill the program right in the middle of the year. Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, finally, let me make this observation. I was visited today by representatives of the Tennessee Education Association. I have not always gotten along well with the Tennessee Education Association because of the subject we are discussing today. In 1983, I proposed the first master teacher program in the country, the first attempt by a State to pay teachers more for teaching well and to reward principals in the same way. The National Education Association went apoplectic for over a year. We had a brawl for a year and a half. We finally passed a program and our Career Ladder Program lasted for several years, until I got out of office is really what happened, and then it gradually went away. Mr. President, 10,000 teachers were rewarded, paid more, their retirement pay was more, and we talked about that today. I appreciated very much their visit because this includes some teachers who were part of that Career Ladder Program. They are the leadership of the teachers' union, the teachers' association in Tennessee. They came to see me about it, and they were very honest. They said any program that picks one teacher out and rewards outstanding teaching or rewards an outstanding principal is difficult to do because it is hard to make it fair. But we must do it. Almost everyone agrees that if we make any progress in education, especially with low-income children in poor performing schools, we have to find a way to pay good teachers more and good principals more and keep them in those schools. We have to do it. So this teacher incentive fund is a real casualty here, and I hope the majority whip, the assistant Democratic leader--he is here--I know he cares deeply about education, about the program in Chicago which is part of this. Maybe it is an oversight. Maybe it is a casualty that both Republicans and Democrats have had to deal with over the past 2 months. What I hope is, if there are any amendments allowed to this joint funding resolution, this amendment will be one of them. If it is not, I hope we can work together in the Senate, as well as in the House, and do what President Bush has asked us to do, not only put $200 million in for next year, but send a signal to the big city school districts across America: Don't give up, we want to help you train and hire outstanding teachers and outstanding principals.