In an increasingly interconnected world, we must have a globally competitive education system. When it comes to economic growth, a well-educated workforce armed with the skills needed to prosper in a global economy is critically important. That is why education reform should be a top priority for our nation. Every child should have access to a quality education. There is no better program of social welfare than a good-paying job, so it is essential to advance policies to make sure all Americans have the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in today’s economy.
Education policies and curricula are state and local prerogatives. A top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to reform will not work. Real education reform must empower workers, students, and families instead of political appointees at the U.S. Department of Education to make these important educational decisions. New federal mandates handed down from Washington won’t fix what ails our public schools.Yet Washington has been doubling down on a failed approach. For many years, Congress and a succession of presidents have continued to throw money at the problem and to promulgate more “national standards” attached to federal funds in hopes that a higher percentage of students graduate from our K-12 schools with a quality education. It hasn’t worked, and our policy makers need to acknowledge this and change their approach.
I believe the following early education and K-12 and higher education reform principles plus a continued emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) will help ensure that our children are prepared to enter the workforce of tomorrow so we can sustain the economy on a track of dynamic growth.
Early Education and K-12 Reform Principles
It should be clear by now that simply spending more money on education does not equate with better outcomes. The United States spends more per student than all but a handful of other developed countries. Virginia students consistently rank in the top five in measures of academic performance, but the Commonwealth ranks 23rd in per-pupil spending. Despite the massive amount spent nationwide, however, our students continue to lag behind their global peers. Even worse, about 20% of America’s high school students fail to even graduate within four years. According to data from the Program for International Student Assessment in 2012, American children are ranked 20th in science, 26th in math, and 17th in reading. The strength of Virginia’s state and local education system demonstrates the proposition that more spending and more federal standards are not the solution to what ails our education system.
We cannot be complacent about the continued underachievement of our public school system. Unless we change our approach, we risk consigning the United States to a permanent decline. A failing system of public education will have a critical and long-term impact on our economic growth, global competitiveness, and national security.
Overhaul Federal Education Funding and Programs
The volume of federal regulations, programs, and related bureaucratic minutiae that impedes state and local innovation in education is mind-boggling. According to the Government Accountability Office in 2010, around 150 K-12 and early childhood education programs operate in 20 executive branch and independent federal agencies with total funding levels on average over $55 billion per year. This duplicative, complex structure is found throughout the federal government and leads to poor results. Those federal programs determined to be necessary should be consolidated. Others, like Title I-A funding, should be considered for block funding grants contingent on demonstrating progress to the Department of Education. These changes would simplify federal funding, lighten the burden of mandates coming from Washington and free up states to innovate in serving their parents, students, and teachers.
Encourage Alternative Forms of Education
Our children should have a wide array of educational options available to them in order to obtain a world-class education. All types of schools, from traditional schools to innovative online learning options should be on the table. Opportunity is enhanced by choice, and all families must have access to meaningful educational options. This is why I believe strongly in the continued growth of these education options. Congress should allow states to use federal funds to expand choice in education, thereby allowing innovative, high-performing schools the freedom they need to thrive without an over-burdensome regulatory apparatus stifling their growth. The Federal Government can and must go further in helping promote their development. As seen in Senator Alexander’s Scholarship for Kids Act, dedicating federal funds to the creation of scholarships for low-income children could be a boon to true school choice for parents throughout the country.
I believe charter schools are a fundamental way forward in increasing options for our children. If elected, I will advocate for education reforms that increase the number of charter schools and provide greater support to high-performing charter schools. We need to break down barriers to the development of these innovative schools. We also need to empower our public school principals to identify and reward good teachers, and to remove poor ones. The vast majority of public school teachers are genuinely committed to the students in their charge, and they shouldn’t be undermined—nor their pupils held back—by a small number of poor teachers. I am confident that a results-driven approach to education will create higher quality schools that are better prepared to educate the future leaders of the United States.
I am also committed to the homeschooled students throughout our Commonwealth. Every day, nearly 30,000 students from all different backgrounds are taught by their parents or family. These students and their parent-teachers deserve our support to ensure that they have the resources they need.
Support Special Needs Students
Approximately 6 million students with disabilities, ages 6-21, get educational services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Actual implementation of the IDEA standards (a free and appropriate education for every student with a disability) varies widely from state to state with enforcement sometimes lacking, and students with disabilities often placed in learning situations inadequate to their needs with little recourse. These students should, instead, have the option to attend any school that best meets their needs further. The Department of Education has an opportunity to share best practices and assist states by highlighting successful special needs education programs.
Higher Education Reform Principles
In higher education, too, Americans are not getting bang for our buck. In 2011, outstanding student loan debt passed $1 trillion dollars for the first time. Only two years later, this figured had increased by $200 billion to $1.2 trillion. In 2003, 25% of 25-year-olds still had student debt. By 2012, this number had soared to 43%. During those same years, the average loan balance for those young Americans rose by 91% from $10,649 to $20,326.
Yet all this soaring student debt has not paid off for graduates in terms of landing a job commensurate with their expensive degrees. In fact, from 2001 to 2011, we saw a 61% increase in the number of college graduates living at home. When we look at the quality of the jobs graduates are obtaining, a remarkable 46% of our recent college graduates ages 22 through 27 are today either unemployed or working at low-wage and part-time jobs.
We cannot promise recent graduates a brighter future when they are crippled by massive debt and an anemic job market. Hardworking parents who saved to pay for their children’s college educations expect that those college degrees will serve as a gateway to future opportunity and success. But an economy that is not creating jobs cannot possibly provide our young graduates with the chances they need to start a successful professional career. Instead, as a college degree rapidly becomes more expensive, the value of that degree is dropping.
Virginia boasts some of the best public colleges and universities in the nation and a strong system of community colleges, but there remains much work to be done in making higher education more accessible and affordable. Working Virginians require the resources to tailor their skills to a changing economy, which is why I applaud Virginia’s efforts to turn our community colleges into engines of workforce development, and why I will support prudent workforce investment policies in the Senate. To compete internationally, we need a skilled workforce to support American manufacturing, as well as energy and technological development.
Oppose All Efforts to Tie Federal Student Aid to a School Rating System
The Postsecondary Institution Ratings System is a disturbing overreach by the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress. While Senator Warner straddles the fence, I will stand forcefully with students and universities in ensuring our colleges and universities remain the best in the world by opposing this one-size-fits-all national mandate. All 50 of Virginia college and university presidents agree: this system is a bad idea and its unintended consequences would stifle access and innovation for lower-income students. Encouraging states to promote transparency and working in cooperation with our universities will ensure far better outcomes than a system dictated by the Department of Education.
Address the Student Loan Crunch
Without the funds to attend school, pursuing education beyond K-12 becomes impossible for many of our young people. Two avenues for student aid, federal funds and student loans, are areas in need of reform. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is complicated, confusing, and time-consuming. This is why I support simplifying the process and accelerating the timeline for when students learn about their financial aid eligibility. The sooner this information is known, the better students and their parents can judge which school is the best fit.
For many recent graduates, student loan payments can be a serious financial burden that weighs heavily on their plans for the future. Reform proposals such as tying student loan payments to income levels would give these new members of our workforce the ability to manage their payments effectively. With the right policies, recent graduates can begin renting their own places to live, buying a car, and starting families rather than paying off creditors.
Reform the Federal Accreditation System
The federal accreditation system is antiquated and discourages many new and effective learning opportunities. Schools must apply and be accredited through the Department of Education in order to qualify for federal aid. This arrangement prevents many new and innovative approaches in education from becoming established because the accreditation process is so difficult and expensive. Reducing outdated regulatory barriers and decentralizing the system, with the Department of Education maintaining a role in overseeing federal dollars, would allow states to create their own system of accrediting education institutions, programs while potentially expanding online learning options, supporting education savings accounts, and accommodating homeschooled students.
In addition, we also need to make sure that our policies are not exclusively about those seeking a four-year or graduate degree. Encouraging online learning by allowing alternate forms of credentialing can both help control education expenditures and encourage competition. Career academies and vocational schools would likely grow for those students who wish to pursue a career in a worthy trade. Instead of credentialing institutions, we should instead credential courses and skills acquired, which would do a much better job of measuring skills valued by employers. It also holds the potential of lowering college costs, creating a more flexible higher-ed system for students, and helping innovative start-ups to compete. Ultimately, these changes would help to reintroduce competition back into higher education that hasn’t been present for years, as well as help to alleviate college dropout rates, high unemployment among those without university degrees, and unsustainable debt obligations among our young professionals.
Continued Emphasis on STEM
According to the Department of Labor, 50% of economic expansion is the result of the 5% of our workforce that works in STEM fields. To maintain this growth, protect America’s technological edge, and enable Americans to earn higher wages and salaries, we need to renew our focus on efforts to recruit students into these fields and ensure that they receive the type of training that will meet the demands of employers and research institutions in our Commonwealth and throughout the United States.
While STEM funding is important, opportunities exist to encourage our children, young girls and women, minorities and those other under-represented groups, to enter these fields. Corporations who rely on STEM graduates should have a seat at the table and be encouraged to support students at all levels. The Department of Education has a role to play in helping connect industries and companies with states to promote STEM studies, whether through the creation of academies, charter schools, or scholarships. The establishment of STEM-dedicated academies and charter schools throughout the country could help to alleviate both unemployment and student debt for recent graduates.
With STEM graduates in high demand and a fundamental part of our economy, we should do all we can to encourage more students to engage in the fields. Rep Wolf’s 2008 proposal to forgive interest on undergraduate student loans for STEM majors who agree to work five consecutive years in their field was a great step in the right direction. I also believe the encouragement of STEM graduates connect with the next generation in teaching or mentoring could help increase the number of students considering the fields. Together, the more we can encourage these areas of study, the more likely our economy will be well positioned to continue its dynamism.
Working Virginians require the resources to tailor their skills to a changing economy, which is why I applaud Virginia’s efforts to turn our community colleges into engines of workforce development. This is why I will support prudent workforce investment policies, like the bipartisan Educating Tomorrow’s Workforce Act, in the Senate. To compete internationally, we need a skilled workforce to support American manufacturing, as well as energy and technological development.
About the Author: Edward W. Gillespie is a Republican political strategist who served as the 61st Chairman of the Republican National Committee and Counselor to the President in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently running for Virginia’s U.S. Senate seat currently held by Mark Warner in the 2014 election, and on June 7, 2014, he received the Republican nomination.