Children and young adults deserve a quality education that fully develops their abilities, prepares them to succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, and empowers them to contribute to their communities and the nation. But too many of our students are not proficient in core subject areas and lag behind their peers in other countries. Moreover, the rising cost of attending college has prevented qualified students from obtaining college degrees and left many graduates burdened with large student debt.
Democrats are committed to improving the nation’s education system – by making college more affordable and investing in our public schools. Since taking control of Congress two years ago, we have made a significant down payment towards achieving these ends, but we are far from satisfied. All too often, Bush-McCain Republicans have stood in the way of progress and refused to work with Democrats in good faith to address the needs of the nation. The American people are tired of these partisan tactics and Senate Democrats share their frustration. That is why Democrats will continue to lead the way for change – to address the education priorities of our nation that Republicans have ignored.
The Bush Republican Record on Education: College Is Less Affordable and Student Achievement Levels Are Not Adequate
College costs have risen by over 60 percent during the Bush Administration. Average tuition, fees, and room and board charges at four-year public colleges jumped from $8,439 for the 2000-2001 academic year to $13,589 for the 2007-2008 academic year – an increase of $5,150, or 61percent. At four-year private universities, tuition, fees, and room and board charges have increased by $10,067,from $22,240 in the 2000-2001 academic year to $32,307 in the 2007-2008 academic year. (College Board, Trends in College Pricing, 2007).
Moreover, while the federal Pell Grant program has proven to be indispensable for millions of students who might not otherwise have had the financial resources to pursue a college degree, the maximum Pell Grant award has not kept pace with the rising cost of college. While twenty years ago, the maximum Pell Grant covered 51 percent of the cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at a public four-year college, it covered only about one-third of those costs in the 2005-2006 academic year. (HELP Committee Analysis of Department of Education data)
Students struggle with the burden of student loan debt. More than 60 percent of undergraduates at four-year colleges have to take out loans, and the average amount of federal student loan debt upon graduation has increased from $9,250 in the 1992-1993 school year to $19,646 in 2005-2006 school year. (Institute for College Access and Success, September 2007) These increased debt burdens are affecting graduates’ decisions about career paths.
Lenders have been exploiting the student loan system. While students struggle to pay off their loans, the lenders that offer loans to students have been making record profits. The federal government has paid large subsidies to lenders that participate in the federal student loan program — a relic from the program’s inception more than forty years ago when it was believed that incentives were needed to encourage lenders to take part in the program. Moreover, recent investigations have shown that lenders have been exploiting the student loan system, to the detriment of the very students they are supposed to be helping. And the Bush Administration, aware of these improprieties for years, has allowed the problems to continue. (Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2007)
Student performance remains inadequate. Despite the No Child Left Behind Act‘s emphasis on standards and accountability, students continue to struggle to reach proficiency in reading, math, and science. In 2007, only 31 percent of 4th graders and 29 percent of 8th graders scored at or above proficient levels in reading; only 38 percent of 4th graders and 31 percent of 8th graders scored at or above proficient levels in math. (National Assessment of Educational Progress 2007) And only 29 percent of 4th graders and 8th graders scored at or above proficient levels in science. (National Assessment of Educational Progress 2007) Students in the United States also are not performing as well as their peers in many other countries. Our 4th graders ranked below 11 other countries and 8th graders ranked below nine other countries in math. (2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) American 15-year-olds ranked below 34 other countries in science proficiency. (2006 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment)
The Reasons for the Failed Bush Republican Record on Education:
· Failed to provide promised Pell Grant increase. For the first six years of the Bush Administration — when Congress was under Republican control — the President did not follow through on his six-year-old campaign promise to increase the maximum Pell Grant to $5,100. In 2005, Congress had an opportunity to address the rising cost of attending college by reducing excessive subsidies going to student loan lenders and using those savings to substantially increase need-based aid to all students eligible for Pell Grants. But Republicans had other priorities: cutting $12 billion from the student loan program and using it to pay for tax breaks that primarily benefit the wealthy. Only a very small amount of additional savings from the budget reconciliation bill went to student aid, and only a small subset of Pell-eligible students are eligible for this additional aid.
· Failed to address rising student loan interest rates. Interest rates for Stafford loans rose substantially while Republicans were in control. According to the Congressional Research Service, Stafford loan interest rates increased from 3.4 percent to 5.3 percent in 2005, and as of July of 2006, they were up to 6.8 percent on new loans and 7.14 percent for outstanding loans. Again, during the first six years of the Bush Administration, while Democrats supported efforts to make student loans affordable, including lowering interest rates and expanding options to limit loan payments to a specified percentage of a borrower’s income, the Republican-controlled Congress did not supported efforts to reduce student loan interest rates. In fact, the Republicans’ budget reconciliation bill actually increased interest rates for PLUS loans to parents, from the previously scheduled fixed rate of 7.9 percent to 8.5 percent.
· Underfunded No Child Left Behind and Title I. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was supposed to provide a substantial increase in federal funding to go along with its accountability requirements. But the Bush Administration and Republican-controlled Congress failed to fund fully NCLB programs. Each year, the gap between the authorized and appropriated levels has grown wider. At the levels proposed in the President’s Fiscal Year 2009 Budget, NCLB programs would be underfunded by a cumulative total of over $85 billion. While the President trumpets the importance of NCLB, he has consistently failed to provide adequate resources even as local school districts must ensure that more children meet increasingly rigorous academic standards and that all teachers are highly-qualified.
The President’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget increased NCLB funding by only $125 million over the 2008 funding level. This amount is $179 million less than the 2008 funding level, adjusted for inflation. The budget reflected a $406 million increase for state grants under Title I, the main program serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But these new funds were targeted toward new requirements for high schools, rather than helping schools meet the goals that have already been established. Since the budget cut funding for career and technical education programs, the Administration gave with one hand and took away with the other.
· Took a step backward on special education funding. The federal government promised to cover 40 percent of the cost of educating children with disabilities. But Republicans have backtracked on the federal government’s commitment. The President’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget proposed that, for the fourth year in a row, the federal government provide a smaller share of states’ total costs for special education. Although funding for the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) Part B State Grants would increase by $337 million, to a total of $11.3 billion, this amount would provide just 17 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure for educating students with disabilities — less than half of the 40 percent of “full funding” level to which Congress committed when IDEA was first enacted 33 years ago. The president’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget proposal would have provided the lowest level of support for special education since Fiscal Year 2002. In addition, the Administration sought to reduce Medicaid-based reimbursements related to services for special education students, even further reducing federal support for schools to serve students with disabilities.
· Failed to make preschool available to more children. For more than 40 years, Head Start has provided America’s neediest children with cognitive, social-emotional, and academic skills, helping to prepare them for success in school. Studies show that at-risk children who have participated in Head Start programs are better prepared for school than their peers who have not had the benefit of Head Start. However, Head Start currently serves only about half of all eligible preschool children and fewer than five percent of eligible infants and toddlers. In the last Congress, Democrats joined many Republicans to craft a strong bipartisan bill to strengthen Head Start by expanding eligibility, strengthening teacher quality, and improving school readiness. Unfortunately, this bill stalled because the Administration insisted on inserting a divisive and highly controversial provision that would allow Head Start providers to discriminate on the basis of religion. From 2002 to 2007, Head Start funding has been cut by 11 percent in real terms.
Democrats Have Offered a New Direction for Education in America
· Democrats passed a law to make college more affordable. Democrats recognize that students and their families are struggling to cover the rising cost of college and have made college affordability a top priority. That is why under Democratic leadership, Congress overwhelmingly approved the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which increases access to higher education and directs federal dollars where they are most needed. This legislation increases student aid for low- and middle-income students, providing over $20 billion in new student aid and benefits, the largest increase in student aid since the G.I. bill. The legislation helps make student loan debt more manageable by capping monthly federal student loan payments, and reducing the interest rate on subsidized student loans – from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent over five years. The bill also forgives student loan debt for those who commit to public service, and reforms the student loan system. Moreover, the legislation provides benefits to students at no cost to taxpayers by reducing excessive lender subsidies and redirecting federal aid to students who need it most. The President signed this legislation into law (P.L. 110-84) on September 27, 2007.
· Democrats approved legislation giving colleges incentives to rein in tuition increases and further expanding college access for low-income students. In addition to rising tuition, students and their families face an overly-complicated and confusing federal student aid application process, as well as a student loan industry that has been mired in conflicts of interest and corrupt lending practices. That is why the Democratic-led Congress, building on the steps taken under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, approved the Higher Education Opportunity Act. This legislation reauthorizes the Higher Education Act of 1965, strengthening many of its provisions and including new measures to address rising college costs and unethical practices in the student loan industry. The bill holds colleges accountable for rising college costs by improving the availability and accuracy of information available to parents and students.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act also simplifies the financial aid process; expands grant aid for the neediest students; and reforms the student loan system so that it serves the best interests of students, not banks. In response to the corruption uncovered by recent investigations of the student loan industry, the legislation ensures that colleges are recommending lenders based on the best interest of students, not the self-interest of financial aid officers; prohibits payments, gifts, and other inducements from lenders to colleges and financial aid administrators that create conflicts of interest; and requires colleges to establish and follow a code of conduct with respect to student loans. The Higher Education Opportunity Act was signed into law (P.L. 110-315) on August 14, 2008.
· Democrats passed legislation to protect student borrowers from the turmoil in the U.S. credit markets. In recent months, problems in the mortgage market have made it difficult for some lenders that participate in the federal student loan program to secure the capital they need to finance college loans. To help ensure that that access to college loans is not jeopardized by turmoil in the credit markets, Congress passed the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act. This legislation increases the amount of federally-subsidized loans available to students and provides parents with improved access to low-cost federal loans. The legislation also helps students access low-cost federal loans by helping to stabilize the private student loan program and shoring up the existing "lender of last resort" program. In addition, by expanding eligibility for need-based financial aid, the legislation helps reduce students’ reliance on loans to pay for college. The bill was signed into law on May 5, 2008 (P.L. 110-227), and legislation to extend the Act for an additional year, through June 30, 2010, is now on its way to the President.
· Democrats are determined to keep American students competitive in the global economy. In early August 2007, on a broad bipartisan basis and with the strong support of the technology, business, and academic community, the House and the Senate approved the conference report to H.R.2272, the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act (America COMPETES). The bill was signed into public law (P.L. 110-69) on August 9, 2007. The law ensures that the United States retains its competitive position in the world through increased resources for math and science education for teachers and students in elementary through graduate school, as well as increased investments in science and technology research and innovation in the public sector. America COMPETES also supports private sector research and innovation, including investing in programs that ensure small- and medium-sized businesses have the tools needed to contribute to the global economy. This legislation follows through on a commitment by Democratic Leadership to ensure U.S. students, teachers, businesses and workers are prepared to continue leading the world in innovation, research, and technology — well into the future.
· Democrats passed vital legislation to expand and improve Head Start has become law. On November 14, 2007, the Senate unanimously approved the conference report to accompany H.R.1429, the Head Start for School Readiness Act, which increases funding and expands access for the Head Start program to include additional low-income children up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill also takes important steps to expand Early Head Start (the component of Head Start that benefits infants and toddlers and their families) to serve and additional 8,000 low-income infants and toddlers over the next five years. To improve and expand the availability of quality early childhood education, the legislation establishes an Early Education and Care Council in each state to develop a coordinated and comprehensive system of early childhood education and development. The President signed this legislation into law (P.L. 110-134) on December 12, 2007.
· Democrats have fought to invest more in education, despite Republican obstruction. Democrats have fought to invest in education and other priorities of middle-class Americans that were neglected for the first six years of the Bush Administration. Under Democratic leadership, Congress approved the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Conference Report, 2008 (the “original Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill”), which called for $4.5 billion more for education than the President’s Fiscal Year 2008 budget, which cut education funding by $1.2 billion. Unfortunately, while spending billions on his failed Iraq policy and tax breaks for the wealthy, and having increased the federal debt by more than $3 trillion, President Bush picked a partisan political fight with Congress over spending and vetoed the Original Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill. Despite efforts by the President and his Republican allies to block funding of critical domestic needs, the Democratic-led Congress ultimately passed and the President ultimately signed a Fiscal Year 2008 appropriations bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, which provided $3 billion more for education than President Bush’s budget.
Key examples of Democratic investments in education include the following:
- Backing our promise for students with disabilities. The original Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill called for $11.29 billion for IDEA Part B state grants, an increase of $509 million over the Fiscal Year 2007 funding level. The Consolidated Appropriations Act provided $11 billion for IDEA Part B state grants, still an increase of $259 million over the Fiscal Year 2007 funding. These additional funds helped reverse the declining share of federal resources for educating students with disabilities. In contrast, the Bush Administration’s Fiscal Year 2008 budget proposed slashing $291 million from special education.
- Taking additional steps to make college more affordable for millions of students. The original Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill called for discretionary funding to raise the maximum Pell Grant award. Combined with new mandatory funding in the recently-enacted College Cost Reduction Act, the maximum Pell Grant would have been $4,925, an increase of $615 over the previous year year. The Consolidated Appropriations Act raised the maximum Pell Grant award to $4,731 – the largest increase in the Pell award since 2001. Conversely, the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2008 budget request would have supported a maximum Pell Grant of just $4,540, and fallen short of the amount needed to offset the increasing cost of tuition.
- Investing in our schools. The original Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill provided $1.6 billion in additional funding for NCLB programs, enough to provide Title I academic support services to 430,000 additional disadvantaged children. The Consolidated Appropriations Act provided $1.19 billion over the previous year’s funding level for Title I grants, still the largest increase in five years. The Bush Fiscal Year 2008 budget called for $118 million less in additional funding for NCLB than under the Final Appropriations Package, while eliminating all funding for school technology, school counselors, and arts in education.
- Providing Head Start services to more young children. The original Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill called for $7.04 billion for Fiscal Year 2008 for Head Start, $153.6 million more than in the previous year. The Consolidated Appropriations Act included $13.7 million more for Head Start than enacted in Fiscal Year 2007 appropriations; (the President had proposed to cut Head Start by $100 million). This increased funding will help provide America’s neediest children with cognitive, social-emotional, and academic skills to help prepare them for success in school.