WASHINGTON, D.C. | January 22, 2015
Last fall the American people sent a clear message: They want to move our country in a new direction, one that will lead to prosperity and opportunity for every man and woman willing to work for it.
That’s no small task when you consider the problems we face: a persistently weak economy, stagnant household incomes, a broken education system, and a social safety net stretched thin – to name just a few.
As I meet with people from Minnesota and across the country, they often share their concerns and frustrations. They are concerned about the future and frustrated with a federal government that just doesn’t get it. But they also share a sense of enduring optimism.
Despite our challenges, we still live in the greatest nation on Earth. There is nothing we can’t accomplish once we set our minds to it. The same country that won the race to the moon and invented the iPhone can continue to lead the world and remain a shining city on a hill, but to do so will require a lot of hard work, some tough choices, the courage to fight for our principles, and a willingness to accept compromise.
More than 50 years ago, President Kennedy looked to the future with confidence and a healthy dose of realism. He knew we couldn’t achieve peace and prosperity within 100 days or 1,000 days or even during his administration. But President Kennedy rallied a nation with three simple words, “Let us begin.” I believe that is our charge today as well.
Let us begin building a stronger economy and better America. Let us begin that great effort for the moms and dads living paycheck to paycheck and wondering how they will send their kids to college and plan for retirement. Let us begin for the entrepreneurs and small business owners struggling to succeed under a cloud of uncertainty and mountain of red tape. Let us begin for the millions of Americans who are being left behind because they can’t find full-time jobs. Let us begin for each and every child filled with hopes and dreams and trapped in failing schools.
For the next few minutes, I would like to discuss how the Education and the Workforce Committee will play a leading role in that effort, and more specifically, what the committee plans to do to improve education for America’s children.
At an event hosted by AEI three years ago, I spoke about the failure of U.S. schools to teach our children what they need to know to thrive in the 21st century economy. I described the state of the American education system as “sobering.” As I look back, those words described the situation rather mildly. I wish I could say things have started to turn around, but they have not.
It’s estimated that one out of every five students will drop out of high school, which means every day thousands of children walk away from one of the best shots they have to earn success in their lifetimes. These young men and women will face fewer job prospects and lower wages, and be more dependent on government assistance to help pay the bills and put food on the table.
But don’t get me wrong. Just because a student receives a diploma doesn’t mean he or she is guaranteed success. Far too many high school graduates are entering the workforce with a sub-par education. According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress, only 38 percent of high school seniors can read at grade level and just 26 percent are proficient in math.
Each year countless parents have no choice but to send their kids to broken schools. Meanwhile, Washington talks about reform yet nothing changes. Something has to change.
I know you are all familiar with a little law known as No Child Left Behind. Signed by President Bush 13 years ago, enacting the law was the last time federal policymakers reformed our K-12 education system. Despite its best intentions, the law is failing to meet the needs of students.
For example, a one-size-fits-all federal accountability system hampers innovation and limits the ability of states and school districts to address their students’ needs. Outdated teacher quality measures fail to adequately capture how well teachers teach, and a massive investment of taxpayer resources has done little – if anything – to change the trajectory of student achievement levels.
Instead of working with Congress to replace the law, the Obama administration has spent the last several years offering states temporary waivers from the law’s most onerous requirements if states agree to new mandates dictated by the Secretary of Education. Congress wanted to provide relief, yet the administration said, “You can have relief, but only with strings attached.” Now states and schools are tied up in knots.
Allowing the Secretary of Education to act like the nation’s superintendent only creates confusion, uncertainty, and frustration. Another example is the ongoing debate around Common Core. What began as a voluntary effort at the state level to improve education standards has led to a broader revolt against federal overreach into our classrooms.
I support a state’s right to determine what its education standards will be. And I understand how important parental involvement at the local level is in determining how these standards are met. The Department of Education doesn’t have a role in this process. Secretary Duncan doesn’t have a role in this process – nor do any of his predecessors or successors.
Success in school should be determined by those who teach inside our classrooms; by state and local leaders who understand the challenges facing their communities; by parents who know better than anyone the needs of their children.
Unfortunately, we have reached the point where too many decisions are made in Washington. While there are heroic efforts taking place in classrooms across the country, the federal government has more control over schools than ever before. It is making it difficult for educators to provide a quality education and countless children are paying the price. We need to do better. We have a moral obligation to do better.
That is why more than a year ago the Republican-led House passed the Student Success Act. The Student Success Act would have restored the balance between the federal government’s limited role and the responsibilities of states and local governments to deliver an excellent education to all students. The bill moved away from one-size-fits-all accountability requirements and eliminated the onerous “Highly Qualified Teacher” requirement that tells us nothing about teacher effectiveness.
The legislation also consolidated more than 70 ineffective and duplicative education programs into a Local Academic Flexible grant, giving districts maximum funding flexibility to support local efforts to increase student achievement.
The Student Success Act was the first comprehensive bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to be considered in Congress in more than 11 years. It was an important step to replace a flawed law, but unfortunately, it was the last step taken in the 113th Congress. Our Democrat colleagues in the Senate refused to consider the bill or any legislation addressing K-12 education, forcing schools to continue wrestling with a convoluted waiver scheme and broken law. Fortunately, there are new allies in the Senate who share our sense of urgency.
Chairman Alexander has already begun the reauthorization process in the Senate and I look forward to partnering with him. He and I both agree that Congress needs to act because the status quo is failing our students. The stakes are too high to let this opportunity slip by. It’s time to reform the law so every child can receive the quality education they deserve.
Replacing No Child Left Behind would be a significant achievement for any Congress, but we need to do more. There are other windows of opportunity to improve education we must pursue.
As you may know, the Perkins Act provides federal funding to states to support career and technical education or CTE programs. The law helps high school and community college students access valuable training programs and hands-on experience necessary to gain an edge in the local workforce.
The best CTE programs are known for their rigorous coursework and hands-on training in fields ranging from computer science and information technology to law enforcement and nursing.
However, like so many federal laws, this one needs to be reformed as well. We need to do a better job connecting coursework with industry demands and local labor market needs. We also need to help students as they leave high school and prepare to enroll in a college or university. Finally, we need to enhance accountability to help ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent. A number of my committee colleagues are passionate about this issue and eager to get to work improving the law.
Last but not least, we need to strengthen higher education so more Americans can turn the dream of an advanced degree into reality.
A college degree is a good investment, yet for many the cost is simply too great. Others struggle to fit the traditional college experience into an already hectic lifestyle that may include family, work, or both. What can we do to help address these challenges?
First, we have to empower students and families to make informed decisions. Students and families should have access to the best information that is easy to understand.
Second, we need to simplify and improve student aid. Let’s pull students and families out of the current maze of programs and help students receive a clearer picture of their financial aid in a more timely manner.
Third, we need to promote innovation, access, and completion. Innovation is the key to giving families more affordable choices in higher education.
We also need to strengthen programs that encourage access and help ensure every student who enrolls in an institution completes their education.
Fourth and finally, we must provide strong accountability and preserve a limited federal role. We need to ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent, but also be mindful that federal rules and reporting requirements add administrative costs on schools – costs that are typically passed on to students in the form of higher fees and tuition.
Is there a lot of work to do? Absolutely. Am I optimistic about our chances? Yes, I am. The House of Representatives is ready to hit the ground running. We heard loud and clear the message sent by the American people, and we are ready to do the work that is necessary to move our country in a new direction. But we cannot do this alone.
Success will require presidential leadership, the kind of leadership we have not seen in recent years. We need constructive engagement from the Obama administration. Drawing lines in the sand isn’t constructive. Responding critically in the press to each new development in the legislative process isn’t constructive. Proposing ideas more fit for a political campaign than reality isn’t constructive. If we are going to succeed, the administration will need to start working with us, not against us.
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