Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks Of Sen. Alexander - DC School Choice

Posted on September 25, 2003

Mr. President, I appreciate the senator from Ohio giving me the opportunity to speak at a time while the senator from California is still in the Chamber and the mayor of the District of Columbia is still here. I greatly respect the leadership shown by the mayor of the District of Columbia and by the senator from California, who are willing to take a fresh look at children who need help. This leadership is based upon their own experiences and common sense, and wisdom to try something different. I listened very carefully to the senator from California. I was thinking the Senate is a good place for someone with a lot of experiences on the street and in the mayor's office, in political campaigns, and in legislative bodies. She is someone who has enough experience to come to her own conclusions. This is a terribly important decision. It would not even be before us if the mayor and other local officials in the District of Columbia had not asked for it because too many of the changes that have been suggested in education are often suggested in the tone of: This is good for you. But, it rarely ever happens unless somebody says: I want this for my child, or my school district. I remember in Milwaukee 15 years ago, there was a strange confluence of circumstances that led Milwaukee to try to give the poorest families in the city more choices of school for their children. It only happened because Polly Williams, who was the state representative and was the leader of Jesse Jackson's campaign in Wisconsin, and the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, and the Republican governor, Governor — now Secretary — Thompson, all happened to come to the same conclusion. They all thought outside the box. They all did things that were different. But the person that really made the most difference, with great respect to the mayor and with great respect to the Governor at that time, was Polly Williams, who represented parents who said: I want this for my child. What we are hearing today in the Senate, and what the senator from California has so beautifully stated, and the mayor has brought to our attention, is that we have several thousand families in the District of Columbia who are saying to us: We want this for our child. We see the results. We see the figures the senator from California cited: In eighth grade only a few children are reading at the eighth grade level, so few children are able to do math, this lack of academic success is almost a guarantee of a lack of success in life. I was glad I had the assignment of being the presiding officer at the time when the senator from California made her speech. I wanted to add to that in a couple of ways. I think she beautifully distinguished between this proposal and a broad voucher program. We have argued those up and down the street for years. But here is what the senator from California reminded us is different about this proposal: Number one, the mayor wants it. If we were in a state, if we were in the State of California, or Tennessee, or Ohio, the money we are talking about would really be the state's money; in effect, it would be money the state was spending the way the state wanted to spend it. We just happen to be in the District of Columbia where the money is collected a little differently. This is money that local people really ought to be able to decide how to spend, and they want to spend it this way. That is one big difference. The senator from California said this is a pilot program. One might argue that there is not such a thing in federal government; that every program lasts forever. But it doesn't have to last forever. This is a chance to try to give 2,000 poor children from failing schools one option to see if they can succeed in their educational life. We don't have many pilot programs with this idea. We have one in Milwaukee where it worked well, I thought. I have been to those schools. We learned a lot. We have some programs in Ohio, which the presiding officer helped to implement. In the nation's capital, it might be good to have a look and see whether this idea works or not. The senator from California suggested in her amendment some provisions which will help make sure that it gets a fair test  requiring scholarship students to take tests similar to other students in the District, requiring the Secretary of Education and the mayor to select an independent entity for evaluation, and to say that the teachers of these children who are on scholarships should be as well qualified as possible. Those are very sensible additions. The mayor wants it. It is a pilot program. And it helps 2,000 of the poorest children in failing schools by giving them $7,500 a year of new money. This comes from no other educational program. If it is not spent for this, it goes right back into the Federal budgets. It is new money to give them that choice. Pilot programs and studies sometimes help us learn things. For example, Vanderbilt University did a very interesting report that was published in September of 2001. The senator from California and the mayor of the District of Columbia might be interested in this, too. They took a group of schools all of which have the characteristics of potential failing schools. In this group of schools, 35 percent of the students changed school every year, and 50 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. The parents of the children in those schools had a modest education themselves. It is a recipe for failure when compared to most of our schools. Yet in these schools — instead of having only 1 of 10 or 1 of 20 8th graders who score proficient in math or reading, these schools are first in the country and second in the country among African-American students, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress in Math and Reading. What schools are these? These are the schools on the military bases across the country. All of us can speculate as to why that is true. There might be more discipline in a military school or military environment. Another one might be that the school reports to the commanding officer of the base. The senator from California has just increased the accountability of the schools in these scholarship programs by saying the mayor is directly responsible. The mayor of the District of Columbia is going to be paying attention to these schools and these scholarship kids. There is another thing we might learn from this study of the military. There is one other provision which I found very interesting. At the military post schools where the military children who live on the base go to school, parents must go to the parent-teacher conference. They don't have a choice. They can be court-marshaled if they don't go. They are ordered to go. I guess that might be the single most important thing. If this education has all of these aspects — and everyone is an expert. Everybody has 1,000 ideas. There are two things we know for absolute sure. The thing that makes the most difference in a child's education is the parent and the second thing is the teacher. Everything else all added up into a lump counts for relatively little compared to those first two. It might be that if there are 2,000 families who go to the trouble of helping their kids move from a failing school into another school that these parents will have increased parental involvement. This might be what makes the difference in terms of their child's success. But we don't know that unless we try to find out, which we can do over the next 5 years if we support the senator's amendment and then we support the bill that is reported. There are a couple of other things I would like to say. The senator from California said that she has lived long enough to do what she thought was right and that she was puzzled by the opposition to this program. I have to admit that I am puzzled, too. On my side of the aisle, I am not always in lockstep with all of the Republican ideas that come along because I have lived long enough to make up my own mind about things. But on the idea of saying that poor children shouldn't have the same choices of schools that middle-income and rich kids have, I have never really understood the opposition. It has always puzzled me. Let me give an example of why. This is not some idea from the moon. The idea of giving families choices in educational institutions has been the single most successful social program we have ever had in our country=s history. Most people would say that the GI bill after World War II has been our most successful social program. What happened after World War II? At a time when only 5 or 10 percent of Americans were going to college, the Government said to the veterans: When you come home, to pay you back, we are going to give you a scholarship to go wherever you want to go to school. They said: You may go to Berkeley. You may take this money to Fisk University. You might go to Hastings in California. You can to go Vanderbilt, you can go to the University of Tennessee, you can go to Ohio State, or to Notre Dame, or Kenyon. You can go to Yeshiva. You can go to a Brigham Young University. Wherever you want to go Byou can go to an accredited university. At that time, a great many of the veterans returning from World War II used their GI bills to go to high schools. Many of them went to Catholic high schools. At that time, we began to allow Government scholarships to follow students to the educational institutions of their choice. At that time, about 20 percent of our higher educational institutions were public. About 80 percent of the students went to private schools. It sounds strange today because now we have big public universities. In Ohio you had all of those wonderful institutions — Miami, Kenyon, Oberlin — all the colleges in Ohio. And Ohio State wasn't all that big at the end of World War II. A lot of the colleges that are universities today were just small teachers colleges. What has been the effect of allowing federal dollars to follow students to the educational institution of their choice since World War II? What happened is that it has created more opportunities for Americans more than any other program we have ever passed. It has created not just some of the best universities in the world but almost all of the best universities in the world. It continues today in the form of the Federal Pell Grant and the Guaranteed Student Loan Program. One-half or more of students who go to colleges or universities in California or in Ohio or in Tennessee go to college with a federal grant or with a loan following them to the college or university of their choice. When I was president of the University of Tennessee, it never occurred to me to come to the Senate and say, Senator DeWine, I hope you will pass a law that keeps Federal dollars from following a Tennessee student to Vanderbilt or to Fisk or to Maryville College or Carson-Newman College or Howard University or Brigham Young or Yeshiva because they are private, public, or parochial. It never occurred to me. I wanted the students to have all of those choices. It helped them and it helped our university. If we have the tradition of choice in America, and if we have 60 years of funding educational institutions by allowing the money to follow the student to the school of their choice, it has always puzzled me as to why we exempt grade schools and high schools. We even allow federal scholarships to let money follow preschoolers to Head Start or the child care program of their choice. Many states allow juniors and seniors in high school to let money follow them to the college of their choice. We have gotten in this rut, and it is not clear how we got there but some people are determined to keep it forever. The ones paying the price are the poor kids of America. We just finished what has turned out to be a very unpopular set of tests in Tennessee and America, the leave no child behind test. In our state, some of the superintendents and teachers were up in arms. They said: We are not a failing school. I said: I would not get too proud or too embarrassed about the scores in Tennessee or California because all the leave no child behind tests are demonstrating is what we already know, which is that in most of our schools in America, even some of our finest schools, there are some children who are not learning to read. They are not learning to compute. Almost all of those children are disadvantaged. We can ignore that and adopt a new slogan that says leave no more than 35 percent of our children behind and go right on to decide to try some other things. As the senator from California said, one thing we could try is to allow the District of Columbia to spend its money helping 2,000 of those children who are poor and in failing schools, help them go to a school of their parents' choice and see whether that helps. Some people say the school choice plan is a think tank plan, maybe a conservative plan, maybe even a Republican plan. It is none of that. Let me give an example. One of the most distinguished educators in America is a man named Ted Sizer, at Harvard University, a graduate student during the Lyndon Johnson days. He was a "power to the people," Johnson liberal Democrat. As his graduate degree thesis in the late 1960s, Ted Sizer published a proposal called "The Poor Kids Bill of Rights." The idea was that part of the war on poverty, under the LBJ programs, the Federal Government should give $5,000, in 1969 dollars, to every poor kid — he defined poor as middle income or below; which meant half the kids — give $5,000 to half the children in America and let it follow them to the school of their choice. That proposal came out of the 1960s from Ted Sizer, out of Harvard, out of Lyndon Johnson's philosophy. It is as true to that philosophy as it is to Milton Friedman's philosophy. I like better what the senator from California said. She was not so interested in a philosophy. She was interested in parents and kids on the street. That is who we should be listening to. If the mayor and the chairman of the city school board say: We have tried everything. We are spending $11,000 per kid. We are putting more money into charter schools. We are improving our schools, but we have all these children who are not learning to read. Could we not try to give them a chance to go to some of the same schools that they could go to if their parents had some money? That is all they are saying. I am very glad to have been here today to hear the senator from California address the Senate. I am glad she is here to make a difference. I am glad the District of Columbia mayor is here to make a difference too. Everyone, after being here for a while, looks to the end of their careers and wonders what it will look like when looking back. My guess is when the Senator from California and the Mayor of the District of Columbia look back - these decisions, which are courageous in a political sense, are decisions they will take great pride in years to come.