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Mr. President, I rise today to talk about the state of education in America today. And I want to pose a simple question:

Are we better off today than we were four years ago?

Let’s look at the facts.

Four years ago, we were making record investments in education. We were giving students, parents, and teachers the tools they needed to succeed.

We focused on results, and we got them. We focused on our classrooms, and we improved them. We focused on our students, and we helped them on a path to lifetime learning.

Today, we find ourselves in much different circumstances. Today, the focus is on process – not on results. Today the focus is on centralizing authority, instead of on the classroom. And instead of focusing on our students, the current Administration is passing the buck.

During the Clinton Administration, we focused on improving the economy and giving every American the tools they needed to succeed. We recorded the longest un-interrupted growth period in our nation’s history, and we helped the American people get the education, training, skills, and experience they needed to compete in the global economy. We created 26 million American jobs.

But today it’s a different story. We face dismal budgets, unfunded mandates for our schools, and constant attacks on the programs that disadvantaged families rely on. Instead of helping students, this Administration has broken promises and failed to pay the federal share for education.

Just look at how this Administration has underfunded No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It’s turned programs that help students into unfunded mandates that burden our states.

Over the past four years, states spent $72 billion to cover the unfunded mandates in IDEA and No Child Left Behind.

In my own state of Washington –

  • IDEA is underfunded by $746 million.
  • No Child Left Behind is underfunded by $408 million.


NCLB

Two years ago, we passed the No Child Left Behind Act. I voted for it.

Most of us in the Congress agree that accountability is important, and that we need to make sure our kids are learning the things they need to succeed – things like reading, math, writing, and science.

NCLB said that in exchange for new accountability, schools would get the funding they need. The accountability has been imposed, but the funding hasn’t. In fact, federal funding for the No Child Left Behind Act has fallen $32 billion below authorized levels since the Act was signed into law.

Mr. President, I’ve visited schools in every corner of Washington state, and I know first-hand that educators are working harder than ever to help their students and to meet the new accountability requirements.

Today, our state and local budgets are stretched thin. Our local communities cannot afford to make up the difference between what our schools were promised and what this budget proposal actually provides.

This year, the President’s budget fell $9.4 billion short of fully funding this law. President Bush has proposed the smallest increase for education funding in 9 years. He even proposed the eliminating common sense initiatives like dropout prevention.

In Washington State alone, the difference between the President’s request and the promise of NCLB means that nearly 28,000 low-income students will be left behind. That number skyrockets to 4.6 million nationwide.

We can do better, and that’s why I offered an amendment to the Senate budget resolution to fully fund the Act. My amendment failed on a party line vote.

PASS Act

When we passed the No Child Left Behind Act, Congress and Administration side-stepped the issues affecting our high schools.

Our national high school graduation rate is an abysmal 69 percent. That number is even worse for students of color. Roughly half our minority students are graduating from high school, which means that nearly half are also dropping out.

We need to keep better track of how minority students are doing by tracking dropout rates carefully. But today the Department of Education is not requiring disaggregation of data on dropouts. That will make it harder for us to help vulnerable students or even to discover which students need help.

With the right policies, we can reduce the dropout rate. That is why last summer I introduced S.1554, the Pathways for All Students to Succeed (PASS) Act. The PASS Act will reduce dropouts and help close the achievement gap.

The PASS Act does three things:

  • First, it will help students learn to read and write by providing $1 billion to help schools hire literacy coaches.


  • Second, my bill ensures students are taking the classes and getting the support they need to finish school. It provides $2 billion for academic and career counselors to ensure students have a personalized plan for completing high school and going on to college.


  • Finally, my bill provides extra help to schools that need it most. It provides $500 million in grants to help improve low-performing schools improve. I hope that the Senate will pass this bill this year.


I would like now to turn to the federal role in the Individuals with Disability Education Act.

IDEA

Nearly thirty years ago, the federal government made a commitment of equal opportunity to the nation’s children with disabilities.

With that commitment came the promise that the federal government would pay 40 percent of the average per student cost for every special education student. However today, the federal government is paying less that 19 percent of that cost. Over the past four years of fiscal crisis, federal funding has fallen $40 billion short of the 40 percent promise.

This hole in special education funding not only hurts our disabled students. It also hurts their classmates. In order to make up for the federal funding shortfall, many districts have been forced to take money from their general education budget, which affects all students

Over the past few years, IDEA has received increases in funding levels. However, according to the Congressional Research Service, at increases of $1 billion each year, the federal government will never fulfill the promise of funding at 40 percent. Further, even if annual increases were $1 billion plus inflation, we will not reach the promised level of 40 percent until 2035 – another 30 years.

Just last week, the Senate passed a reauthorized version of IDEA. Yet despite clear support, the Senate did not pass an amendment by Senators Hagel and Harkin to fully fund IDEA through mandatory funding.

Education must be a priority for our country if we want a stable economy and a brighter future. We must focus not only on funding federal mandates but on access to quality early childhood education and post-secondary education.

Head Start

Currently, we are reauthorizing the Head Start law. As a former preschool teacher, I know first hand how critical those early years are for a child’s future learning. Head Start looks at the whole child from health and nutrition to learning basic skills that will prepare them for kindergarten.

Yet, this year the President’s budget, barely allows Head Start to keep up with inflation. That amount is not nearly enough, especially in a year where we are examining new requirements for this program. Without a substantial increase in funding, these programs will have to shut the door to needy, at risk children who will fall farther behind before they reach kindergarten.

What troubles me more is this President’s clear intention to end this critical program. We all know that proposals to block grant programs will eventually lead to decreased funding for the program.

Block granting Head Start is not only supported by the President, but also by the House of Representatives. I know I will continue fighting to protect this critical program that has made such a huge difference in the lives of millions of low-income children.

While an early start is critical for low-income children, the federal government must continue helping students go to and graduate from college. We must maintain programs that help low income students graduate from college.

Conclusion

Mr. President – public education is the bedrock of our democracy. It helps create good, active citizens, and it gives our families the tools they need to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. It also ensures that each generation of Americans will have more opportunities than their parents and grandparents did.

There is so much at stake in making sure we are moving education forward for all of America’s students. And so I turn back to the question I posed at the start of my remarks –

Are we better now that we were four years ago?

Sadly the answer is “No.”

Our students deserve better. Our country deserves better, and I will keep fighting here in the Senate to ensure that all of America’s children can get a good education.