Other than that walk-across-the-state thing and of course the trademark plaid shirt, former Gov. Lamar Alexander is probably best remembered for his attempts to reform education in Tennessee. At one time, Alexander's "Career Ladder" programa comprehensive merit pay plan for public school teacherswas an example for other states. Career Ladder also made Alexander a marked man in the eyes of teachers' unions and the public education establishment for the rest of his political career.
Now, as a U.S. senator, Alexander is at it again. Turning his focus from teachers to students, the onetime Secretary of Education unveiled his "Pell Grants for Kids" initiative Monday, proposing to give $500 a year to middle- and low-income families to use at the school of their choice. The money would, in the policy jargon, "follow the child" to the school, which could use the cash for whatever it chooses.
As its name suggests, Alexander's idea is modeled after the federal Pell Grant program, which offers lump sum monetary grants to college-bound students whose families are at or under a certain income level. Because they come with virtually no strings attached (students can use the grants at any accredited college or university), Pell Grants are among the most popular government programs going.
It's a pity, then, and also somewhat paradoxical, that Alexander probably will have a devil of a time translating that popularity to the grade school sphere. What Alexander is advocating, after all, is a nationwide school voucher program under a more politically palatable label.
Still, the idea has merit, and hearing Alexander discuss it, you get the feeling that he's finally found something he can sink his teeth into after two fairly uneventful years in office.
"I intend to make education a priority," Alexander told a group of reporters Monday after pointing out that former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, sponsored similar legislation during his term in office. "Typically [when a new education idea is brought up], the two sides just get in our two camps and argue. I think this is something we can discuss."
In a recent article published in the public education reform journal Education Next, Alexander lays the groundwork for this discussion. He includes a clever riposte to those who will claim that his voucherergrant program will drain money from public schools.
"Pell Grants for Kids would provide more federal dollars for schools while also encouraging more local controlI mean more control by parents and teachersover how that money is spent," Alexander writes. "Once parents make the decision about where the $500 will be spent, the principal and teachers in that school or program decide how it will be spent."
And just where is this $500 per child going to come from? Alexander estimates that Pell Grants for Kids would cost $15 billion a year if enacted in full. That's quite a chunk even by Washington standards, so he proposes a phasing-in of the program that earmarks a portion of the natural growth in annual federal education budget expenditures for the grants. By Alexander's reckoning, if the program had begun in 1992 and Congress had allocated just two-thirds of all new education spending to it (not counting funds for special education), already there would be enough money to fund scholarships for students from kindergarten to eighth grade.
None of these arguments will stop Alexander's traditional political opponents in the public education realm from sharpening their long knives in anticipation of skewering what would be the most far-reaching school choice program in history. But that may be a welcome switch for the moderate Republican who has made a habit of irritating his conservative base during his term in office. He has consistently advocated the rights of individual states to tax Internet transactions despite the efforts of economic conservatives to maintain a federal moratorium on cyber-taxation, for which he recently earned the opprobrium of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. More recently, he opposed the efforts of social conservatives (mostly from his own party) to place a ban on gay marriage in the Constitution.
Nevertheless, it may just be that independent streak that will give Pell Grants for Kids a fighting chance, as foes of the proposal will find it difficult to dismiss its avuncular sponsor as a wild-eyed right-winger. They will also find it hard to cow Alexander on debating points, given that he knows more than the average Senate bear about the ins and outs of public education policy.
Alexander's strongest suit, however, may be the simple fact that he's more or less retired from political life. True, he's a U.S. senator, but careerwise, he's gone as far up the ladder as he's going to go and seems content with that. That gives him the ability to take a political risk or two. Furthermore, with a Senate seat that's essentially his for life if he wants it, Alexander's got the luxury of unlimited time, every moment of which he's probably going to need.
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