Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks Of Sen. Alexander - Pell Grants for Kids

Posted on May 17, 2004

A half century after Brown v. Board of Education, education on equal terms still eludes too many African-American school children. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has called America's persistent racial achievement gap "the civil rights issue of our time." By the 12th grade, only one in six black students and one in five Hispanic students are reading at grade level. Math scores are equally disturbing. Only 3 percent of blacks and 4 percent of Hispanics test at proficient levels by their senior year. By another standard, about 60 percent of African-American children read at or below basic level at the end of the 4th grade, while 75 percent of white students read at basic or above at the end of the 4th grade. There is still a huge achievement gap among African-American children and white children. The No Child Left Behind Act's system of standards and accountability is creating a foundation for closing the gap. But funding disparities between rich and poor - too often minority children attend poorer schools - school districts remain a stubborn contributor to inequality. Between 1996 and 2000, poor students fell further behind their wealthier peers in seven out of nine key indicators, including reading, math and science. These outcomes cry out for a different model, one that helps address funding and equality without raising property taxes; that introduces entrepreneurship and choice into a system of monopolies; and that offers school districts more federal dollars to implement the requirements of No Child Left Behind with fewer strings - in other words, more federal dollars, fewer federal strings, and more parental say over how the federal dollars are spent. Does this sound too good to be true? I would suggest it is not. Look no further than our nation's best-in-the-world higher educational system. There we find the Pell grant program, which has diversified and strengthened America's colleges and universities by applying the principles of autonomy and competition. This year, $13 billion in Pell grants and work study and $42 billion in student loans will follow America's students to the colleges of their choice. This is in sharp contrast to the local monopolies we have created in kindergarten through the 12th grade education, where dollars flow directly to schools with little or no say from parents. That is why I am proposing Pell Grants for Kids, an annual $500 scholarship that would follow every middle- and low-income child to the school or other accredited academic program of his or her parent's choosing. These are new federal dollars, so no district would see a cut in its share of Washington's $35 billion annual appropriations for K-12, and increases in funding for students with disabilities would continue. Armed with new purchasing power, parents could directly support their school's priorities, or they could pay for tutoring, for lessons and other services in the private market. Parents in affluent school districts do this all the time. Pell Grants for Kids would give less wealthy families the same opportunities - an example of such a family are the Holidays in Nashville, Tennessee. Raymon Holiday is a 6th grader who recently won the American Lung Association of Tennessee's clean air poster contest. I was there when he won the 10-speed bicycle you get for winning this poster competition. I met his father, an art major, and his grandfather, a retired art teacher. They told me his great-grandfather was a musician. So you can see where Raymon Holiday gets his instincts. His grandfather, the retired art teacher, lamented to me that art classes are usually the first to go when school budgets are cut. With Pell Grants for Kids, a typical middle school of 600 students where Raymon might be one of 500 middle- or low-income students who qualify to receive a $500 Pell grant. His middle school would see a $250,000 increase in funding. Raymon would be assured of art lessons. The Pell grant model also encourages great American entrepreneurship. Enterprising principals, like Raymon's principal, might design programs to attract parental investment: advanced math classes, writing workshops, after school programs, English lessons - whatever is lacking due to funding constraints. Surveys continue to show that while Americans are concerned with the state of public education, most support their own child's public school. Herman Smith, superintendent of schools in Bryan, Texas, would welcome the $6 million that would accompany 13,500 eligible Bryan students - 90 percent of his district. Bryan is right next door to College Station, home of Texas A&M where, according to Smith, their budget cuts are larger than Bryan dreams of spending for new programs and personnel. Property values there are double those in Bryan, as is the per-pupil expenditure. Not surprisingly, Bryan's population is almost half African-American or Latino, while College Station is three-quarters white. With 30 million American school children eligible for Pell Grants for Kids, my fellow fiscal conservatives are probably raising an eyebrow. But please listen. Every year, Congress appropriates increases in funding for kindergarten through the 12th grade. What I am offering here is a plan to earmark most of these new dollars - aside from increases in spending for children with disabilities - for parents to spend on educational programs of their choice. Otherwise, we will continue to invest in the same bureaucracies that have disappointed poor and minority families for too long. Pell Grants for Kids could be implemented gradually, starting with kindergarten and 1st grade at an initial cost of $2.5 billion. If the program had been in place during President Bush's first two years in office, the extra $4.5 billion spent on K-12 education - again, not counting another $3 billion for children with disabilities - would have created $500 scholarships for all nine million middle- and low-income students through the 3rd grade. We have had 50 years to deliver an American education on equal terms to all students. But a baffling commitment to the status quo has prevented us from living up to Brown's noble legacy. This anniversary presents the perfect opportunity to inaugurate a new era, one that uses the strategy that helped to create the best colleges to help create the best schools. Let us start with Pell Grants for Kids and move on from there "with all deliberate speed." I would like to make several additional remarks about Pell Grants for Kids. As I mentioned, the idea is a pretty simple one - significantly new federal dollars, fewer federal strings, and more say by parents about how the money is spent. To give you an idea of how much money that would be, I have taken a quick look at my home state of Tennessee. Tennessee has 938,000 students in kindergarten through the 12th grade. Pell Grants for Kids would be eligible to all those students who are from families below the state median income. The state median income for a family of four in Tennessee is about $56,000. So for families who have an income of $56,000 or below, each of their children would have a $500 scholarship that would follow that child to the school or other approved academic program of their parents' choice. In June I hope to introduce a piece of legislation, hopefully with a bipartisan group of senators. In July, Sen. Gregg and I have already discussed a hearing, which we will have in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. And then perhaps next year, the President of the United States might want to make this a part of his budget. I believe it is time in this country to recognize we need to give poor and middle-income parents more of the same choices of educational opportunities wealthier families have and that we may be able to do this without harming our public schools. We have had, since World War II, scholarships that have followed students to the educational institutions of their choice, and they have done nothing but help to create opportunity and create the best system of colleges and universities in the world. I think we ought to use the same idea to try to create the best schools in the world. We estimate about 60 percent of all of Tennessee students would be eligible for a $500 Pell grant. In some of the rural counties where there are a great many poor children, it might be 90 percent of the students. In other counties — Davidson, Maryville, Oak Ridge — it might be a smaller percentage. But all in all, there should be about 562,000 students in Tennessee who would be eligible. This would bring an additional $281 million to Tennessee for K-12 education, and parents would have a say over how that money is spent. Often when this issue comes up and we talk about spending more federal dollars for local schools, the senators on my side of the aisle get a little hot under the collar. We do not want to spend any more federal money for local schools. On the other hand, when we say let's give the parents more say on how the money is spent, the collars get a little hot on the other side of the aisle because they are reluctant to give parents more choice. This is a conflict of principles. It is the principle of equal opportunity — giving parents more choices. But there is another valid principle on the other side. It is called E Pluribus Unum. We have public schools, common schools, to teach our common culture, and we do not want to harm them. It is a proper debate in this body to say let's ask questions if we are giving parents more say, more choices. Will that harm our common schools? And there is a proper way to ask in this Senate: Can we wisely spend that much more money? This is quite a bit more money. Fully funded Pell Grants for Kids programs would cost $15 billion in new federal dollars a year. It would add about $500 to the $600 we now spend on each of the children in America today from the federal government. Only about seven or 8 percent of the dollars we spend on children comes from the federal government. So it would be about a 70 percent increase in federal funding for every middle- or low-income child fully funded. We are proposing to do this over a long period of time. Basically, to add to the new money that we would appropriate every year for K-12, and give most of that to Pell Grants for Kids. This would create more equality in funding for poor districts. It would especially help African-American and minority kids. It would provide extra dollars to implement the standards of No Child Left Behind, and it would introduce for the first time into our K-12 system the principle that has created the best colleges in the world, the idea of letting money follow students to the institution of their choice. Over the next several weeks, I will be discussing this with individual senators. I have not prepared a piece of legislation yet because I don't want to stand up and say: here it is, take it or leave it. Let's say one team says no choice and one team says no money, then we are back where we were. I am looking for ways to advance the debate. I don't believe we are going to be spending much more money through the federal government in the same way we are doing it today. A lot of senators, and I am one of them, do not want to spend more federal dollars through programs that have lots of federal controls. We have seen the limit of command and control from Washington, D.C., with No Child Left Behind. That program will work. But I don't believe we can expect to give many more orders from Washington to make schools in Schenectady, Nashville, and Anniston, Alabama, and Sacramento, better. That has to happen in local communities. The right strategy is significantly new federal dollars with fewer federal strings and more parental say about how those dollars are spent. This does not have to be a Republican versus Democrat idea. I am not the author of this idea. In 1947, the G.I. bill for veterans was enacted. Since that time, Federal dollars have followed students to the colleges of their choice. Today, 60 percent of America's college students have a federal grant or loan that follows them to the college of their choice. When I was president of the University of Tennessee, it never occurred to me to say to the Congress: I hope you do not appropriate any money for children to go to Howard University or Notre Dame or Brigham Young or Vanderbilt or Morehouse or the University of Alabama. We give people choices. Or put it another way, in my neck of the woods we told everyone where they had to go to college. We said, Senator Sessions, you have to go to the University of Tennessee. We said to young Lamar Alexander: You have to go to University of Alabama. Civil wars have been fought over such things. That is exactly what we do in K-12. We give people choice and have created the best colleges in the world. We give them no choices and we have schools that we wish were better. So the idea would be to try what worked for colleges here in K-12. I said I was not the only one to think of this. There was the G.I. bill for veterans — that was bipartisan — after World War II, maybe the best piece of social legislation we ever passed in the history of our country. In 1968, Ted Sizer, perhaps the most renowned educator in America today, proposed a poor children's bill of rights, $5,000 for every poor child to go to any school of their choice, an LBJ power-of-the-people, liberal, Democratic idea at the time. In 1970, President Nixon proposed, basically, giving grants to poor children to choose among all schools. The man who wrote that speech for President Nixon was a man named Pat Moynihan. He was a U.S. Senator. In 1979, he and Senator Ribicoff, two Democrats, introduced essentially exactly the idea I am proposing today. In fact, in 1979 Senator Ribicoff and Senator Moynihan proposed amending the Federal Pell Grant Act and simply applying it to elementary and secondary students. At that time, when the Pell grant was $200 to $1,800, a 3rd grader could get a Pell grant, or if you were a high school student and you were poor, you could get a Pell grant. Senator Moynihan said to this body in 1979: Precisely the same reason ought to apply to elementary and secondary schooling — if, that is, we are serious about educational and pluralism and providing educational choice to low- and middle-income families similar to those routinely available to upper income families. This was the impulse behind the basic educational opportunity grants program as enacted by Congress in 1972. He was talking about Pell grants. It was the impulse by the presidential message to Congress which I drafted in 1970 which proposed such a program. It is the impulse to provide equality of educational opportunity to every American, and it is as legitimate and important an impulse at the primary and secondary school level as it is at the college level. I am going to strongly urge my colleagues not to make a reflexive reaction to this idea because, on the one hand, it has too much money, or on the other hand, it has some choice. Think back over our history and think of our future and realize we have the best colleges and we do not have the best schools. Why don't we use the formula that created the best colleges to help create the best schools? I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Congressional Record at the conclusion of my remarks Senator Moynihan's statement in the Senate in 1980, and following Senator Moynihan's remarks, an article which I wrote for the publication Education Next, which is being published this week, entitled "Putting Parents in Charge." This article goes into some detail about the Pell Grants for Kids proposal. I look forward over the next several weeks to working with my colleagues, accepting their ideas and suggestions about how we improve our schools.