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Alexander Joins Sens. Paul, McConnell, Scott, and Lee in Hosting School Choice Forum

Alexander calls for K-12 schools to “borrow from colleges” the system of sending education dollars to the school of the family’s choice

Wednesday, July 31, 2013Liz Wolgemuth 202-228-4729

WASHINGTON, July 31—Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the senior Republican on the U.S. Senate education committee, on Tuesday joined committee members Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) along with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah),  in hosting a forum on school choice, where the senators heard from parents and students in Washington, D.C. charter and private schools.

Alexander told the forum participants: “I would think teachers would be knocking the door down to teach at a charter school because the whole point of a charter school, particularly a public charter school, is to give teachers freedom from federal rules and that magic word that good educators always want, which is ‘autonomy.’ The autonomy to take a group of students and say, ‘let’s see what they need – if they need big classes, small classes, better teachers, extra language - we’ll design our resources to fit them.’ And then for parents, particularly for low-income parents, it gives them more of the choices that they usually don’t have.”

Tuesday’s forum came on the heels of a charter schools roundtable Sens. Paul and Alexander attended in Nashville at KIPP Academy, as the senators continue their work on federal legislation to allow nearly $15 billion in existing federal Title I education dollars to follow low-income children to the public or private school they attend and make it easier for states and communities to expand high-performing charter schools. Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman hosted the Monday roundtable of teachers, parents, and students.

The senator’s complete remarks from Tuesday’s forum are below:

“I’d like to thank all of you for coming. I see lots of faces in the audience and I’m looking forward to hearing more from the students and others who are here. I’d like to salute Senator Paul for his initiative on this. You know, Rand attracts a lot of attention these days wherever he goes and I like the idea that he attracts attention to charter schools and school choice.

“Yesterday we had a roundtable in Nashville which was really, as these discussions always are, an emotional experience to listen to parents talk about how they found their way to get their child into a charter school. In Nashville, 100 did but 600 didn’t because they were waiting in line.

“And then to see the students and to see how well they perform and to know for sure, just by assessing them on a short period of time, what great citizens they already are and will be during their lifetimes. And then to hear from the managers, the teachers who spend their lives helping these students – it’s a great story.

“So I thank Rand for spending so much time on this. He has emerged as perhaps our most effective advocate for freedom for teachers and freedom for parents and students, which is exactly what we are talking about with charter schools.

“I remember the last year I was Education Secretary, which was about 20 years ago, I wrote every school superintendent in America asking them to try this new idea that was in Minnesota which was called “start from scratch schools.” At that time there were 12 and those were the first charter schools. Today there are 6,000 - 6 percent of all the public schools. I would think teachers would be knocking the door down to teach at a charter school because the whole point of a charter school, particularly a public charter school, is to give teachers freedom from federal rules and that magic word that good educators always want, which is ‘autonomy.’ The autonomy to take a group of students and say let’s see what they need – if they need big classes, small classes, better teachers, extra language - we’ll design our resources to fit them. And then for parents, particularly for low-income parents, it gives them more of the choices that they usually don’t have. So the charter school notion is one that has had bipartisan support. Senator Paul has put a real spotlight on it and I want to help him do that.  Today helps do that as well.

“I’m going to lead to a question, which I’d like to ask any of you to respond to about how we spend our federal dollars.

“We spend quite a bit of federal dollars for elementary and secondary education. What always comes to mind to me is the difference between how we spend for colleges and how we spend for schools. Now everyone says, we have the best system of colleges in the world. I remember asking the President of the University of California, why that was and he said number one – autonomy. Number two - we allow the dollars to follow the students to the schools they choose. It all started with the GI bill. So you can take your federal GI bill or Pell Grant or student loans to Notre Dame or Nashville Diesel College or Yeshiva or Vanderbilt or University of Louisville. Ever since World War II, that’s what we have done.

“And look at the way we fund schools. We just send money to the school and assign the student to the school. I have always said that other than military draft, school’s pupil assignment is the most coercive thing in American life. We got rid of the draft but we still have the pupil assignments. So why not borrow from colleges, the same idea that they have and use it for schools with school choice?

“We have two ideas about how to do that - one would be to take all the federal Title I money—and this is in the legislation that Senator Paul and I have introduced, along with eight other Republican senators--that’s the biggest block of funds that the federal government spends, about $15 billion a year. It is supposed to be for low-income students and it amounts to about $1,300 for each low-income student. Now it makes its way into a lot of schools that don’t include low-income students because of the way we pass it out. Why not just let it follow the child to the school they attend? Or why not give the states [the ability to] give you the option of deciding: Would you like to use your share of this $15 billion dollars, which comes out to be about $700 or $800 per teacher in Tennessee—would you like to use that and let it go straight to the schools? Or, if you decide to let it go to private schools as well – that’s your business. We won’t tell you to do that from Washington.

“That is one idea. The other idea is a step up a little bit. Let’s take all of the money that the federal government spends on elementary and secondary education, which by a conservative estimate is about $60 billion– that was in 2008-2009. If we just divided that up among all middle and low-income students - we can give each one a $2,200 voucher or call it a Pell Grant. In other words, it would follow the child to the schools.

“So would it be a good idea, instead of having all these programs and telling people where to go and what to do, what if we just, at least took the Title I money, or took all the money that we spend on elementary and secondary education – turn it into a $2,200 voucher and let it follow the student to the school of their choice or the school to which they are assigned according to state law?”

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