Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ford Has The Right Vision For Education

As an incoming County Commissioner in Lawrence County this year, one of my main focuses is education.

In my county, dropout rates are high and the skills need to succeed in a 21st Century globalized society are lacking. It really is a sad state.

However, this local trend is only endemic of a larger picture that shows our education system underperforming at every level, as the Knox News reports:

"Tennessee ranks toward the bottom on national reading and math tests, and the United States overall struggles to compete on the educational playing field with Asian and European nations.

The latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal just how many students are not graduating from high school in this country. In Tennessee, for example, one in three students in the class of 2003-04 didn't earn a diploma."

It is clear: we are failing our children.

There has to be a change. In my opinion, a good education is the key to everything in life and is the "backbone" of our society. If we wish for our nation to still be #1 world in the years to come, we better start investing in our education system, instead of neglecting it.

Education will be a big issue for our next U.S. Senator here in Tennessee. We better make sure we elect someone who understands the dynamics of today's society and someone who will work towards making our education system that is to be envied by the rest of the world.

As the KnoxNews article below shows, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. is the only candidate in this race proposing real ideas and solutions that can remedy the troubles our education system currently finds itself in. (Also, see Ford's education plan below)

U.S. Senate hopefuls share views on education

"Tennessee's next senator, who will replace Republican Bill Frist, has an opportunity to become a major player in the contest to even the score with competing nations.

With the primary election on Thursday, the three Republican candidates - Ed Bryant, Bob Corker and Van Hilleary - and the presumptive Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., answered questions last week about their approaches to education.

No Child Left Behind In 2001, the U.S. Congress, with President George W. Bush's blessing, passed a sweeping education reform act called No Child Left Behind, or NCLB. In a bipartisan effort to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students and whites and other races, the law requires annual standardized testing in reading and math and penalizes schools that don't meet the standards.

With the law coming before Congress again in 2007, teachers' unions and others already are lobbying for changes and more funding.

Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga who pushed incentive pay for teachers in struggling schools, said NCLB should be less rigid.

"There's a need for flexibility," Corker said. "The very best things that happen in education happen on the local level. Laws like No Child Left Behind tend to be one size fits all."

A former congressman, Bryant voted in favor of No Child Left Behind. He also co-chaired the National Business Roundtable's effort in Tennessee to boost support for the law.

"As such," Bryant said, "I traveled the state some and heard an awful lot of complaints from people involved in education. But I think the Department of Education, the Bush administration, are responding to these complaints. At the end of the day, I think it's going to be a good program."

Hilleary, also a former congressman, supported NCLB's passage, as did Ford.

"I think it has been an imperfect bill," Hilleary said, "but I think it also has driven a lot of improvement over the country."

Ford named two specific changes he would like to make to the law.

"We should add an early-childhood development program (so) that kids get a base of education from birth to kindergarten," he said.

In addition, "We've got to figure out a way to get more parents involved," he said.

Is NCLB underfunded? The National Education Association, a union that represents teachers across the country, says NCLB is underfunded by more than $40 billion.

Tennessee's Senate candidates also have heard complaints about a lack of funding, and some agree.

"The critics are right about that," Hilleary said. "It is underfunded."

Bryant said the complaints are not unique to NCLB but that he would "likely" vote to allocate more money.

"I would listen to the people in Tennessee involved in this and likely would vote for additional funding," he said. "But it's going to have to be clear to me that it is needed."

To Ford, it's already clear.

"We're asking kids and teachers to deal with only 55 percent of the funding, but (President Bush) has gone ahead with tax cuts for the ultra-rich," Ford said. "When the federal government doesn't fully fund mandates, local and state governments have to raise taxes."

'Opportunity scholarships' On July 18, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and others introduced legislation supported by the president to create "opportunity scholarships," which would pay for students in consistently failing public schools to transfer to private schools or to receive rigorous tutoring.

Critics have called the scholarships "vouchers" and said they would rob public schools of funding.

The three Republican candidates said they support the general idea of the scholarships.

"I'm 100 percent supportive in causing as much flexibility and choice as possible for students," Corker said. "I support vouchers. I support choice."

Bryant said he would be "open" to the legislation.

"I see innovative things like vouchers and charter schools as part of what we're doing in education to better the overall system," he said.

Hilleary also saw the idea as a good one.

"I'm always for legislation that allows for more school choice. Sen. Alexander's right about that," he said.

Ford was less supportive, though he called Alexander "a forward thinker in the Senate."

"One of the reasons some private schools work well is they have smaller classes, parents who are active and teachers who teach their expertise," Ford said. "We ought to take these same models and apply them to public schools."

Higher education Tennessee's next senator also will face issues in the higher-education arena, including rising tuition at colleges across the country and a national cry to produce more scientists and engineers.

Bryant and Hilleary both said their records show their support for making college more affordable.

"I've consistently in my time in Washington supported increasing Pell grants," Bryant said. "The loans, the Pell grants, those kinds of things obviously are a staple of our American education system. But not for those, there would be many who could not attend college."

"I've always voted for more student loans and more Pell grants," Hilleary said. "It's kind of an investment. That type of funding is so different than building a bridge to nowhere in Alaska because this is an investment, and if properly done, you'll get the money back six-fold."

Corker said the United States needs to concentrate much more on science and math to compete in today's global economy.

"I was in China six or seven months ago," he said, "and it's amazing the tremendous focus in that country on math and science and engineering. And there's a tremendous need in our country for more focus in that area."

Ford said his goal is to increase the nation's pool of engineers and scientists, and he is sponsoring legislation with Alexander to help do that.

"Great chemists should have the same options as great quarterbacks," Ford said"

  • Ford's 21st Century Education Plan

    The nation's education system is crying out for profound changes to be made. Our children, in short, are unprepared for the remarkably globalized and diverse economy and world that awaits them. And unfortunately, things are worsening as teacher shortages make it harder for school systems to adapt to a changing global marketplace demanding more and more from our students. And, at a time when Asia, especially China and India, are producing smarter workers and entrepreneurs eight times faster than we are, the debate in America about education hasn't progressed much beyond a national screaming match about teachers' unions, vouchers and the No Child left Behind Act. There is no coherence to the chorus of how to reverse the steady decline of academic achievement in this country.

    What is clear is this - America needs a national education strategy. Ideological partisans will dismiss this as nationalizing public education, which they think will ruin our schools because, among other things, California values will infect Tennessee students and vice versa. Furthermore, the ideologues worry that the federal government will dictate to local school districts what and how to teach. I'm talking about something different.

    This strategy, which I call the 21st Century Plan, would actually localize education even more by empowering and funding school districts that reach achievement benchmarks. Imagine if we divided local school districts into clusters no larger than 30 schools with management teams and boards of directors accountable to students and teachers. The management teams, called principals and teachers today, would be highly educated, focused on results and compensated for their achievements - a model based roughly on the one where investment bankers, corporate lawyers and Wall Street dealmakers find themselves.

    The 21st Century Plan would be funded at the federal level, eliminating the need for local property taxes to pay for local education initiatives. Decision making would be made at the local level but the expectations would be set at the federal level. Some ask, why at the federal level? Because math in Idaho is the same as in Georgia, correct English, Farsi, Mandarin and Spanish are the same in Rhode Island as they are in Tennessee and biology and physics answers are the same in Florida and Iowa.

    More money may not be needed to implement the 21st Century Plan. An inventory of approaches - failed and successful - from across the country would be the first order of business for every level of school, including successful early childhood programs. Second, management teams from across the country would evaluate and study successful models and implement what works in their schools.

    The data is irrefutable about educating kids. The best long-term predictor of student achievement is the quality of education the kid gets from birth to five. The brain develops in remarkable ways during that period. Second, the better the teacher is, the better the student achievement.

    The first action step to implement the 21st Century Plan would be a national early childhood growth plan aimed at starting kids in preschool as early as 2 or 3 for a healthy diet of being taught the alphabets, numbers and shapes, being read and listened to and constructive play time. The cost of this investment will pay multiples in the future because the preparedness level for kindergarten will cut down on remedial work in later grades.

    It will be important that good teachers and classroom instructors are in place. I believe the country would respond to a national call to prepare 1 million new teachers over the next 10 years for every grade level and discipline. A new training system - comprised of institutions of educational excellence as competitive as the nation's top law, business and medical graduate programs - would be adopted so that the best quality would be attracted, prepared and retained to teach America's future. We would accord these educators the same respect we show other valued professionals. For a change, the pay would reflect that. Graduates of these institutions of excellence would be recruited by management teams and boards from all across the nation to come and be education leaders within their clusters. Contracts would be signed, bonuses given and educators would be treated professionally - held to the highest ethical and performance standards.

    Each state's governor would appoint a board to monitor and hold accountable management teams across the respective state. The state would be held accountable by the federal government, which would fund the 21st Century Plan. Management teams who miss the achievement mark would answer to the state board and face penalties and possible removal if they don't meet benchmarks.

    The goal here is to give our kids the best chance to start on a level playing field, academically and socially. And, then put highly trained and motivated educators in the classroom. The federal government has to be a catalyst in making this happen. Paying for and arranging bricks and mortar issues would be left to local districts and states with some help from the federal tax code.

    By that I mean, generous tax subsidies and inexpensive, federally-backed financing plans should invite the construction of small, safe and learner-friendly schools for kids, especially in instances where an existing facility is unfit.

    And finally, academic achievement goals would drive the strategy. This mismatch between what kids are learning and what kids need to know is what needs closing. The national expectations, as they would be called, would be evaluated every four years much like the Pentagon does in its quadrennial defense review. The defense review is a proven model of success. It should be applied to our education system as well.

    Every state is grappling with the challenge of educating kids, preparing teachers and ultimately building a better American future. In short, a national strategy is needed.

    When we win this Senate race, this will be among the first things we do.
211 Days

Days of Congressional Inaction on Ethics

Above is the number of days that have passed since Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to bribing Congressman.

It is also the number of days in which Congress has failed to pass an ethics reform bill that would limit private travel, ski and golf junkets, and would call for a full disclosure of expenses by lobbyists on members of Congress.

It is time for Congress to step up and pass an ethics reform bill that would do all of the above. In addition, it is time to end the pork barrel spending system as we know it and establish an independent ethics commission that would review ethics complaints against members of Congress.

I am proud Congressman Harold Ford Jr. is fighting for that reform!

Read Congressman Ford's call for reform of the House rules here!