Improving Education, Expanding Opportunity

The beginning of a new school year reminds us of the vital role education plays in opening the doors of opportunity to all Americans.  We have an obligation as a society to open those doors ever wider.
 
This also is the time of year to express our gratitude to our educators.  Here in Maine, we are truly fortunate to have so many dedicated teachers, administrators, staff, and school board members who work hard to ensure that every child in our State has a learning environment that is safe, welcoming, and enriching.
 
One of my highest priorities in the Senate is to support education at all levels, including promoting early childhood education, improving our public school system for kindergarten through 12th grade, and working to increase the affordability of higher education.  Since joining the Senate, I have visited more than 200 Maine schools and have seen firsthand their commitment to excellence.
 
As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, I am encouraged by recent legislation that supports this commitment.
 
This spring, the Committee unanimously passed the “Every Child Achieves Act,” a bipartisan bill to reauthorize and reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as "No Child Left Behind." On July 16, I voted for the Every Child Achieves Act when it overwhelmingly passed the Senate by a vote of 81-17.
 
This is a vital piece of legislation to improve our elementary and secondary education system by strengthening the traditional roles played by our local educators, communities, and states.  Congressional action to remedy serious problems with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), while preserving the valuable parts of the law, has been long overdue. The Every Child Achieves Act takes important steps in the direction of improved student performance and closing achievement gaps while providing more flexibility over how to meet the needs of students.
 
In 2004, along with then-Senator Olympia Snowe, I established the Maine NCLB Task Force to examine the issues facing Maine and to provide recommendations for changes in the federal law. Our Task Force brought together individuals with a great deal of expertise, experience, and perspective on NCLB and education policy – from teachers and principals, to superintendents and schools board members, to parents and state officials. The Task Force proved to be prescient in identifying the problems with implementing No Child Left Behind, and 10 years later, its report is as relevant as ever.
 
Chief among the Task Force’s final recommendations was the need for greater flexibility for the State Department of Education and for local schools. Reflecting that recommendation, the Every Child Achieves Act would remove the “high stakes” accountability system that proved to be unworkable under NCLB. This bill would give states much-needed flexibility over how to improve the accountability of schools for student achievement. Recognizing also the critical importance of family engagement in education, the bill supports school districts in conducting parent outreach and participation activities.
 
It is also important that students in rural states, such as Maine, have the same access to federal dollars as those who attend school in urban and suburban communities. Federal competitive grant programs, however, tend to favor large school districts that have the ability to apply for those grants because of these districts’ larger staffs. I am pleased that the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), which I authored with former Senator Kent Conrad in 2002, has been extended in this bill. REAP provides financial assistance to small and high-poverty rural districts to help them address their unique local needs. REAP has helped to support new technology in classrooms, distance learning opportunities, and professional development activities, as well as an array of other programs that help support students and teachers in rural districts.
 
In Maine, educators are working hard to develop high quality assessments that could not only help students learn, but also measure their growth better than the high-stakes testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind law.  I am particularly pleased that the reform bill includes a pilot program to support states that are designing alternative assessment systems based on student proficiency, not just traditional tests. Such systems often give teachers, parents, and students a fuller understanding of each student’s abilities and better prepare them for the college or career paths they choose. The federal government should cooperate with the states and school districts that are designing new assessment systems, and this pilot program is an important step in that direction.  During the Education Committee’s consideration of this bill, I offered a bipartisan amendment to allow more states to participative in the innovative assessment pilot program and to give participating school districts more time to scale up their systems statewide.
 
Several other amendments I cosponsored were included in the bill that passed the Senate, including support for quality after-school and summer programs through 21st Century Community Learning Center program, and literacy and arts education programming for disadvantaged students and children with disabilities.
 
The beginning of a new school year also reminds us that we must address the rising cost of a college education that threatens to close the doors of opportunity to far too many.   Our system of higher education is, in many ways, the envy of the world, but its benefits have not been equally available. Unfortunately, family income still largely determines whether students will pursue higher education. 
 
I have been a longtime advocate for Pell Grants and have consistently supported efforts to help make higher education more accessible. When I worked at Husson University in Bangor, prior to my election to the Senate, I saw first-hand the impact Pell Grants had for many of our students and their families.  One of the first bills I introduced as a new Senator in 1997 was the College Affordability and Access Act.  I have had many young men and women on my staff whose education and subsequent success were made possible by Pell Grants.
 
Earlier this year, the Senate approved my bipartisan amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution to increase access to higher education by strengthening the Pell Grant program.  It would also allow for the reinstatement of year-round Pell Grants, which would permit eligible students to receive more than one grant in a single year, assisting those who choose to accelerate their degrees by taking additional courses, including over the summer.

Education has been described as “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a flame.”  From early education to college, Maine has many keepers of the precious flame of learning.  I wish our educators and their students a happy and productive 2015-2016 school year.