Weekly Column by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - Spellings Nomination

For the week of January 10, 2005

Posted on January 7, 2005

As a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I attended the nomination hearing for Margaret Spellings to be U.S. Secretary of Education. I once held the same job that President Bush hopes Margaret Spellings will hold. At my first Cabinet meeting, I learned that the Secretary of Education sits at the end of the Cabinet table and is the last to be evacuated in case of an emergency. In other words, by some Washington standards, it is not a very important job. But I believe that there are few jobs in Washington more important than United States Secretary of Education. Our country is faced with three great issues. One is terrorism. One is preserving our common culture. And one is keeping our jobs in an increasingly competitive world marketplace. And nothing is more important to keeping our jobs than having a superior system of education at every level. Jobs will migrate wherever the brainpower exists. In short, better schools and colleges mean better jobs. I believe Margaret Spellings will be an excellent Secretary because she is uniquely suited to help President Bush be an Education President. The President knows and trusts her. She has played a critical role in education policy in Texas and in domestic policy in Washington, D.C. She and the President know that Washington can exhort and encourage standard-setting and provide some funding, but that the quality of our schools, colleges and universities depends primarily upon parents, faculty members, communities, state and local governments and our private sector. During his eight years, the President has a great opportunity to be our most important Education President. Here are my suggestions for how he and his Secretary might focus their time during this next four years: I. Establish a point person within the administration for higher education -One of my great regrets as I left the office of Secretary of Education in 1993 was that I did not ask President George H.W. Bush that I be that point person. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that half of our new jobs since World War II have come from our technological superiority. Much of that brainpower has come from 50 or so research universities and 50 major federal research laboratories. No other country in the world has anything like this. We spent $19 billion this past year on federal dollars for research at these universities. The education of the greatest generation at more than 6,000 institutions of higher education has come primarily because 60 percent of those who attend colleges and universities have a federal grant or loan that follows them to the school of their choice. Yet I fear we are taking our higher education system for granted. Other countries, such as China, are waking up. More of their best students are staying home instead of coming to the United States. Visa problems in an age of terrorism discourage the importing of more foreign brainpower. Federal spending for the physical sciences is flat. And states are reducing their support for higher education because of increasing health care costs, among other reasons. This administration and this Congress should create a new focus on how to make sure that we don't wake up in 10 years and discover we have lost our secret weapon in keeping good jobs: our superior colleges, universities and research labs. II. Find ways to involve parents in the education of their children by giving them more choices of educational opportunities - The genius of federal policy toward higher education is that we respect the autonomy of individual institutions and allow federal dollars to follow students to the schools of their choice. This creates opportunity, competition and diversity. Since these policies have created the best colleges, why not use them to help create the best schools? This President, I believe, should propose that new federal funding for elementary and secondary education should begin to follow the successful example of federal funding for higher education and increasingly be given to parents who then spend it at the school or the educational program of their choice. III. Make sure we are spending federal dollars for children age 0 to 5 years as well as possible - The federal government spends $18 to $21 billion each year on 69 different programs that dedicate part of their budgets towards early education and care programs that serve children under age 5. The Department of Education administers 34 of the 69 programs. States and local government spend even more. Almost everyone agrees that the earlier children are helped, the better they learn. But now is an excellent time to examine whether we are spending well what we already spend. IV. Make sure No Child Left Behind is funded, flexible and working before it is expanded - During the last four years President Bush and the Congress have increased federal funding for k-12 education by 36 percent, while state funding in my own state of Tennessee has increased by 10.7 percent. Despite GAO and Accountability Works findings to the contrary, there are still complaints that the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind aren't properly funded. My own experience has been that 70 percent or even more of the consternation about NCLB among local school systems came simply from confusion about what the federal and state governments did or didn't require. This Congress and, I believe, the administration have a responsibility to make sure that the current requirements of No Child Left Behind are properly funded and are as flexible as possible so that teachers and principals can use their own common sense and good judgment to reach state standards. We want to learn as much as we can from the testing already underway in grades 3-8 before authorizing an expansion of No Child Left Behind to the high school levels. A good place for the new Secretary to show good faith in this is to work quickly to implement the new state flexibility that Congress has granted states to define a "highly qualified" teacher for special education students in middle and high schools. About 100,000 teachers are required to meet this new requirement by August - and the authority to set the more flexible requirements was only signed into law last month. V. Restore the civic mission of our public schools, especially by helping children learn American History - The late Al Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, once said the rationale for the common school in America was "to help immigrant children learn the 3 R's and what it means to be an American with the hope they would go home and teach their parents." It is a national embarrassment that high school seniors make lower scores on United States history than on any other subject tested by the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Congress enacted legislation that Senator Reid and I sponsored last year to authorize summer academies for outstanding teachers and students of American history and civics. I strongly urge the Secretary to ensure that a few of these Presidential Academies for Teachers and Congressional Academies for Students are up and running in the summer of 2005. Senator Kennedy and I have sponsored legislation that will allow 10 states to compare scores on U.S. history NAEP exams in the 8th and 12th grades. The Congress and the new Secretary can work together to coordinate a variety of federal programs designed to restore the civic purpose of our public schools. The rudiments of our common culture are our common language, English, our common history, and our common ideals, like liberty and equal opportunity, which we are constantly striving to achieve. The common school exists to help make sure each generation knows this. I look forward to working with the President, his new Secretary and members of this Committee to place the proper national spotlight on education. If confirmed, Mrs. Spellings may sit at the end of the Cabinet table and be the last to be evacuated in case of an emergency, but in my judgment there is no more important chair at the table than the one she has been nominated to sit in.