Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - Our Lincolnian System of Higher Education

Posted on May 10, 2009

When figuring out what to do about education, Republicans might well ask, “What would Lincoln do?” During the first 16 months of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln helped enact three of the most important and successful pieces of legislation in American history: The Homestead Act; the Morrill Acts, which created land-grant colleges; and the Pacific Railroad Act. What made these laws successful, according to Harvard professor Bill Stuntz in his April 6 article in The Weekly Standard, was that they “did not depend on the complex judgments made by members of congress or government regulators. [They] were meant to confer opportunities, not to solve problems…the necessary elbow grease was supplied by the private citizens whose prospects Lincoln improved.” These three laws helped American farmers create the world’s most productive farmland, and helped American universities produce the most educated workforce. The transcontinental railroad knitted together this sprawling nation. A later version of this same thinking produced the GI Bill scholarships which followed veterans to the colleges of their choice. Then came Pell grants and students loans, which today follow two out of three students to the college of their choice. Similarly, $31 Billion of federal research money is handed out each year to universities. Almost all of it is peer-reviewed and competitively granted, not parceled out by legislators and regulators. All of this might be called the Lincoln approach to federal government involvement in education: “conferring opportunities.” Compare it to the command-and-control model best exemplified by our K-12 system of education. Students don’t choose; they are told where to go to school. Government money goes directly to institutions, not to students. Government and unions write rules handcuffing teachers and school leaders. Virtually no teacher is paid more for outstanding teaching. There is yet another approach. No federal involvement at all: leave education to the states or communities. I believe the federal government should be involved in education, but I am for the Lincoln empowering model as opposed to the FDR-era command-and-control model. I believe that 95% of making K-12 education better depends on parents, teachers, and school leaders. While I believe it is virtually impossible for regulators and politicians in Washington to make schools better, I believe it is sometimes possible for Washington to help parents, teachers, school leaders and the communities make schools better. So, then, exactly what should the federal government do to empower parents and to be better parents? • Pell Grants for Kids—Give every middle- and lower-income child $500 to spend after school at any state-approved education program. This would help fund music and art, English, or other catch-up and get-ahead lessons. It would pour billions into poorer school districts, perhaps encouraging public schools to get busy and attract students by offering the after-school lessons themselves. • Home schooling—Never hinder home schooling and look for ways to help. Why punish parents who are doing their job well? • Help adults learn English—There are lines of new Americans outside federally funded programs to help adults learn English. Encouraging our common language is a federal role, and if the parents speak English, the child is more likely to speak it better. To help teachers and school leaders be better, the federal government should support: • Higher standards and data collection—Set by states or groups of states, so teachers, as well as parents, can know what is expected. • Pay good teachers more—Every child benefits from exceptional teaching. Now that we know how to relate student achievement to the skills of a teacher or group of teachers, we should pay teachers for their superior skills. Expand the Teacher’s Incentive Fund to help local school districts reward outstanding teaching. As Albert Shanker said, “If you can have master plumbers, why not master teachers?” • Encourage charter schools—Liberating teachers and school leaders to use their own good judgment to help the children assigned to them. • Teach for America—Supply new, raw talent to the classroom and form an alumni corps of support for excellence in public schools. • Summer academies—Expand summer academies for outstanding teachers of U.S. History as well as the sciences. These are inexpensive and enriching. • School leaders—The biggest bang for the buck is training school leaders. Again, expand the Teacher Incentive Program and the New Leaders for New Schools program. Our higher-education system is molded upon Lincolnian principles. It is also the best in the world. Our K-12 system is smothered by commands and controls from governments and unions. It is a source of constant concern. Republicans should create proposals and policies that confer opportunities for parents, teachers, students, school leaders, and researchers—and stay away from programs that create command-and-control orders from politicians and regulators. That is the lesson from our founder, Abraham Lincoln.