Remarks by Senator Murray to the Committee for Education Funding - Annual Legislative Conference

Sep 29 2005

"After the Storm: What Hurricane Katrina Revealed About America's Schools – And What We Must Do About It"

Thank you, Mary [Kusler, CEF President], for that kind introduction, and thank you all for that warm welcome. As some of you may know, I've been a pre-school teacher, a PTA member, and a school board president, so I know first-hand about some of the challenges you're facing in your schools.

And I have never been more proud of America's schools and colleges than I've been in the past few weeks -- watching you open your hearts and your classrooms to all of the students who've been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

In the face of so much devastation and turmoil – our public schools have really been a bright light -- reflecting the best of our country's values and giving children an anchor in turbulent times. The images of students going to school in Texas and Michigan and my home state of Washington were a strong and very welcome counterpoint to the horrible images we saw in those first dark days.

It's estimated that more than 370,000 students were displaced. And in spite of the normal burdens our schools endure – like overcrowded classrooms and not enough student aid – you found a way to stretch even further and make room for children who needed a place in school, and I want to say thank you.

Lessons From Hurricane Katrina

I believe that Hurricane Katrina has revealed some lessons about American education that we must follow if we want our country to be strong. I want to talk about those lessons today, and I want to discuss some of the drastic changes that are being proposed in response to the Hurricane – everything from vouchers, to waivers, to funding cuts.

My Bottom Line

My bottom line is this: While it's important to do things fast, it's more important to do them right. And Congress needs to hear from you if it's going to make the right choices in the weeks to come. We should be rewarding our public schools for doing the right thing. We should be empowering them and funding them so they can help every child reach his or her full potential. I don't see that happening today. I see a government that is ready to pursue the wrong priorities, and it's up to us to stand up for our students.


Now before I turn to specifics, I do want to welcome all of you Washington, D.C. for this conference. I know what it's like to try and persuade elected officials to treat education as a priority. That's why I'm so grateful for the work all of you do, both at your local schools around the country and together through the Committee for Education Funding.

I especially want to welcome those of you who have traveled a long way to be with us including some of my friends from back home in Washington state – Rod Grimm and Shirley McCune from the state Superintendent's office.

We Need You Here

Now as much as I like having all of you here in Washington, D.C., the truth is we need you here to get Congress and the White House to do the right thing for America's students. In the coming weeks, Congress will be making decisions about how to help students affected by Hurricane Katrina. It is urgent work. But those decisions will reach far beyond schools in the Gulf Coast. They will impact schools in every community for years to come. Congress will also be making funding decisions that will affect every student in America. I want to help you understand what's at stake for our students, and I want to make sure you have a strong voice in those debates.

Before I do that, I know many of you may not know me, so I want you to understand why I care so much about public education. Some very personal experiences led me to seek a seat in the United States Senate and positions on the committees that set education policy and set the funding levels for our public schools.

My Story

I grew up in a large family in a small town in Washington. When I was growing up, we didn't have much, but we survived because we took good care of each other. But when I was 15 years old, my family was truly shaken to the core. Life changed dramatically when my dad was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. As his disease got worse, my father used a cane and eventually became wheelchair-bound and had to quit work.

My mom, after 16 years of staying home, had to go to work to support our family. She had a hard time finding a job that would pay enough to support seven children and a husband with growing medical bills. To get a better-paying job, my mom needed more training. Through a government program, she got a degree in accounting at a vocational technical college and eventually got a better job. My twin sister, my older brother and I were able to stay in college through Pell grants and student loans. And we survived on Social Security disability checks. As a family – through no fault of our own we had fallen on hard times.

But we got the support we needed. Whether it was food, training for a better job, or help paying for college and eventually because of the support and backing our family got – all seven of us graduated from college. Because we got the support we needed, today those seven kids are: a firefighter, a lawyer, a computer programmer, a sportswriter, a homemaker, a junior high school teacher, and a United States Senator. In my book, that was a great investment.

Education Was the Key for My Family

I have never forgotten that education was the key for my family. Our public school system reflects the best values of our country. Everyday it proves that no matter where you come from, no matter who your parents are, no matter if you're rich or poor, education empowers you to rise above your circumstances and reach your full potential. So I've been proud to fight for public education – starting when my husband and I had our own two children.

My Own Start in Education

When my kids were little, I participated in a parent education program in Washington state. One day in the early 80's, the Washington State Legislature announced it was going to close down this program. The legislators in Olympia told me that it could not be saved. But I didn’t listen. Instead, I organized a grassroots campaign. We brought together thousands of parents from across the state. We wrote letters. We held rallies, and together, we saved that pre-school program.

Later, I ran for the local school board, served in the Washington State Senate, and then I decided to run for the United States Senate. A lot of people told me that I could not become a United States Senator because I didn’t have the right background. They told me I didn’t have enough experience. They told me I couldn’t raise the money. They even told me I was too short. In turns out that when I got elected to the Senate in 1993, I became the fourth-tallest woman in the United States Senate.

I Learned It All Teaching Pre-School

And the experts were wrong in saying I didn’t have enough experience to be a senator. The truth is that I learned everything I needed to know about the United States Senate by teaching pre-school. I learned to treat others as you’d like to be treated, to make sure everyone has a chance to speak, and to never let the bullies win.

Today, Key Supports Are Threatened

Today, many of the things that helped me and my family rise above our circumstances are being threatened - Pell Grants, vocational education, and keeping taxpayer dollars in our public schools where they serve all students. And I'm concerned that some in Washington, D.C. see an opening after Katrina to push ideological experiments on America's schoolchildren.

Well you need to know, I'm not going to sit back and let politicians make choices that will undermine our public schools for years to come, and I know you won't sit back either.

I think it's worth looking at three lessons this hurricane has revealed about American education.

Katrina Revealed How Flexible Our Schools Are in Responding to Changing Needs

First is how incredibly flexible our schools and colleges have been in accommodating so many displaced students. The flexibility we've seen in the past few weeks is a reflection of a much larger truth about public schools. Whenever there are changes in our society, it's our public schools that are often the first to have to deal with them. Today, our schools are expected to be an educator, a parent, a disciplinarian, a social worker, and more – and to do it all with more accountability and less funding. If we expect our schools to keep handling new burdens and new challenges, we need to provide funding at the federal level.

New demands – without new funding – is a recipe for disaster, and that's one of the lessons of the No Child Left Behind Act. It is the greatest "bait-and-switch" ever perpetrated on our public schools. Schools were promised that in exchange for greater accountability they would get great funding. Congress sure handed them the first part, but Congress has never delivered on the second part, and our students are paying a price. The lesson I draw is that our schools are flexible – but as we ask them to do more – we have to provide the funding that enables them to do more.

Katrina Revealed How Much We Depend on Our Public Schools

Second, Hurricane Katrina drove home how central schools are to our communities and to normal, everyday life. Our schools are the backbone of local neighborhoods. They are also key to helping students get back to normal. I'm told that when children arrived in shelters, one of the first questions they asked "When can I go back to school?" For students, school is such a critical part of their identity and experience that getting them back in school is a key part of getting of helping them get back to normal.

Friends, those are the positive lessons – our schools are flexible, and they are essential. But the federal response to Hurricane Katrina has also revealed some bad things about how the federal government treats public education.

Katrina Revealed the Priorities Are Still Wrong

The third lesson is this: In Washington, D.C. the folks in charge still have the wrong priorities. For years, this Administration pushed through budgets that say tax cuts for a few at the top are more important than investments in the public schools and colleges that serve all children. We saw that again this year in February when the President presented his budget, which for the first time in history would actually cut funding for education. We saw it again in April when the Republicans pushed through a budget resolution that would force deep cuts in education. I voted against that budget, and I would do so again.

Where Were Legislators on the Budget Resolution?

In your meetings on the Hill this afternoon, members of Congress are going to tell you –"of course education is important," and "of course" they wouldn't vote to cut education.

But the real test came months ago. Did they vote for the budget resolution – for the budget blueprint that locked in the cuts we're now seeing? If they voted for a bad budget outline back then, they can't tell you today that they're on your side. Holding them accountable for their votes is the only way to force change.

Their Pattern: Tax Cuts First & Fund Schools Last

Putting tax cuts first and public schools and college students last is a pattern we've seen time and again from those in charge – and it even continues today in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

The president has said we'll spend whatever it takes – but we can't touch the tax cuts. Those who are well-off will be protected – and those who suffered in the hurricane will be made whole only by cutting other programs they depend on.

The House Proposal Is Dangerous

In the House of Representatives, the Republican leadership has announced how it would like to pay for the disaster recovery -- not by easing tax cuts for those doing well, but by cutting services for those who need the most help. Let me give you a few examples. Under the House Republican plan, the recovery would be paid for by

  • eliminating Even Start – a family literacy program,

  • by eliminating funding for Safe and Drug Free Schools,

  • by eliminating LEAP grants – which help students go to and pay for college,

  • and by making fewer children eligible for free lunch.

To me, that's just crazy. You don't fund recovery on the backs of people who already need more help than they're getting.

After Katrina, the need for literacy has not fallen, but they want to eliminate Even Start. After Katrina, the need for counseling to help children avoid violence, drugs and alcohol has not diminished, but they're ready to pull the plug on Safe and Drug Free Schools. After Katrina, the number of students who need help going to college hasn't fallen, but they're ready to drop LEAP assistance. And after Katrina, the number of children who rely on the government to be able to eat lunch in school so they can learn instead of sitting there hungry has not gone down, but they want to make fewer students eligible for free and reduced lunch. That's wrong.

Vouchers & Broad Waiver Authority

I'm also very concerned about some of the things the Bush Administration is pushing Congress to do under the guise of Katrina. The President wants public taxpayer dollars to go to private schools through vouchers. I believe there are ways to help affected private schools without going on political ideology.

The Administration is also demanding broad waiver authority. Obviously our schools, at all levels, need flexibility in certain areas, but we need to be cautious about protecting our schools and students.

So I'm very troubled by three things –

  • The continued focus on the wrong priorities – such as choosing to cut education and other programs to pay for recovery

  • I'm troubled by the rush to adopt ideological experiments – through private school vouchers.

  • And I'm troubled by this attempt to overreach and throw out the protections that serve out students well.

We Can Do Better

We can do better, and in the Senate we have a bipartisan proposal that is based on the right priorities. I am working to help pass S. 1715, a bill written by Senator Mike Enzi and Senator Ted Kennedy, to help our nation's elementary, secondary schools and colleges respond to the disaster. Let me share with you some of the key provisions.

Our Bipartisan Recovery Bill

The bill provides funding and increased flexibility for the Child Care Development Block Grant and Head Start to address the early childhood education needs of children displaced by Katrina.

For elementary and secondary schools, the bill provides flexibility and funding for both schools impacted by Katrina and those school districts that are have accepted displaced students. The bill also provides funding for schools to provide early intervention services to special education students who have relocated as a result of Katrina. It helps students who need extra help to succeed in school and students who have individual education plans.

For higher education, the bill also makes progress. It gives students flexibility so they don’t have to repay grant aid they received or make loan payments for a year. It allows institutions to hold onto undisbursed aid so they can rebuild their colleges. It's a good, balanced bill, and I'd like to encourage you to mention it when you talk with your Senators and Representatives this afternoon.

FY 2006 Funding

Now as you well know, legislation to help with the recovery is not the only thing Congress is dealing with. We're also working on the 2006 funding bill and the Higher Education Act.

As I look at the funding for the next fiscal year, I know that our hands are tied by the Budget Resolutions that Republicans passed months ago.

As you may recall, the Republican budget resolution followed the President's budget proposal. It eliminated 48 education programs – ranging from family literacy to career and tech education to the TRIO and GEAR UP programs. In March, I used my seat on the Senate Budge Committee to try and fix that budget plan. I offered an amendment to restore nearly $5 billion in funding. Unfortunately, my amendment was defeated on a party line vote.

So we've got a budget that cuts funding for the Department of Education for the first time in a decade – at a time when our schools need more help – not less. We all know the requirements of NCLB and costs of attending college are not decreasing. It shouldn’t be a victory for a program to be level funded, and not eliminated.

Bright Spot – Pell Grants

Now there is one bright spot on education funding for the coming year, and it concerns higher education. We have improved funding for Pell Grants through the Higher Education Act. We started a program called ProGAP, which will give more money for students who receive Pell Grants. The bill authorizes and appropriates $5.5 billion $4.5 billion in additional grant assistance to all Pell eligible students and $1 billion in new grant assistance to Pell eligible students studying math, science, technology, engineering or certain foreign languages. ProGAP would provide enough funding to increase the maximum Pell grant by $300 in FY2006. I think that shows that Congress is capable of getting its priorities straight, but it requires everyone in the education community to speak up and speak out until we get results.

Fixing Our High Schools

Obviously, I believe the federal government can and must do better for our schools and students. One area in education about which I am personally concerned today is our nation’s high school. So before I close I want to mention a bill I could use your help to pass. Here in Washington, D.C., we talk a lot about global competitiveness. We know that education will be the core of how economically competitive we are as a nation.

However, we are losing too many kids at the high school level. Many of those students who do graduate do not have the academic skills to succeed fully in post-secondary education or careers without remediation. Currently, states and localities shoulder funding for our nation’s high school. I believe it is time for the federal government to play a role both with policy and funding.

I have a bill called the Pathways for All Students to Succeed or the PASS Act, which targets four specific problems in our high schools. It targets academic preparedness through an increased focus on math and literacy skills. It provides for academic counselors so that all students have the information they need to succeed in post-secondary education and careers. It assists schools in knowing who is and who is not graduating from high school so they target resources appropriately. And it provides increased funding for innovative programs in schools determined to be in need of improvement.


Friends, the PASS Act is the type of legislation that sets the right priorities. It recognizes the value of public education and makes the right investments. The only way to get Congress to pass that type of solution is to make sure every Member of Congress hears from you and understands what's at stake.

They need to know that whether they're voting a budget resolution, on an amendment to boost education funding, or a bill like the PASS Act – they are either voting for – or voting against – America's students. And they need to know that you will hold them accountable for their vote.

So in closing, looking back on the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, it's clear our government has many lessons to learn about preparation, coordination and communication. But it also has lessons to learn about education – about the flexibility of our schools, the role they play in our society, and the value they return when we invest in them. It is my highest hope that together we can make sure Congress learns the right lessons in the coming months. And by doing that – we can make sure that the opportunities that helped me rise from a family that was facing real challenges to a member of the United States Senate are still available for every child in America.