America's children are our greatest resource, and federal support for public education is essential to ensuring that our young people can become financially secure and grow into the leaders, innovators, and productive workers of tomorrow. As the spouse of a retired public school teacher, a father and a grandfather, I am a strong supporter of ensuring we have a strong education system.
The federal government funds a broad range of programs to increase education funding at the local level and help students achieve their full potential. These programs include Title I through which federal funding is provided for low-income schools, after-school programs, Head Start, and other important initiatives. To help make post-secondary education more affordable, the federal government created different programs and initiatives, including federal student loans and Pell Grants.
Headstart and Early Education Programs
The beginning years of a child's life are critical for building the foundation necessary for future success in school and in life. High-quality early learning programs can help level the playing field for children from lower-income families in areas like vocabulary, social and emotional development, and cognitive reasoning.
Reports from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that children from birth through age five who are enrolled in high-quality programs score higher on assessments of cognitive skills, language ability, vocabulary, short-term memory and engagement than children enrolled in lower-quality care programs or no programs at all. Children who attend high-quality early learning programs are more likely to do well in school, find good jobs, and succeed in their careers than those who do not. Additionally, research has overwhelmingly shown that taxpayers receive a high average return on investments in high-quality early childhood education, with savings in areas such as improved educational outcomes, higher labor productivity, and reduced crime rates.
The federal government supports early childhood education through several programs, from grant programs to tax provisions. Some programs provide specific funding sources for child care services, including the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Social Services Block Grant, and Head Start programs, as well as education programs funded through the Early Learning Initiative.
The Head Start program provides comprehensive services to young children whose families earn low incomes in order to facilitate their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Services include education, health, nutrition, screening for developmental delays, and a variety of family services when needed. Federal Head Start funds are awarded directly to over 1,600 grantees. Local programs are tailored to the needs of children in different communities. The Head Start program balances this local flexibility with rigorous national quality performance standards.
I have been a strong supporter of Head Start and quality childhood education programs throughout my time in Congress, and I am in favor of increasing access to high-quality early learning programs.
Elementary and Secondary Education Act
Most federal aid programs for K-12 education are authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was most recently amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). The authorization for NCLB programs expired at the end of fiscal year 2008, however ESEA programs continue to operate as long as appropriations are provided. I believe it is important to take action to reauthorize and make needed improvements to NCLB.
There is much consensus that NCLB must be reformed and reauthorization presents a tremendous opportunity to improve our education system and ensure all students have access to a world-class education. NCLB is lacking in many aspects and much needs to be done to make the program more effective. Reauthorization should support college and career-ready standards, address the overuse of testing in teacher and school evaluations that forces educators to substitute test preparation for instruction, and feature an accountability system that includes meaningful targets for improving student attainment while giving schools and districts flexibility in how they achieve those goals. A fundamental rewrite of NCLB must reflect current best practices and strike the right balance between flexibility and accountability.
Most importantly, Congress and the State should ensure that schools have adequate funding to effectively educate our children and bring our education system into the 21st century. As part of my local efforts to highlight the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and higher education, I began an annual Astronaut Day over ten years ago where I bring a NASA astronaut to local middle schools in the 29th District to encourage our students to reach for the stars and go after their dreams.
Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)
In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). This program has helped countless children with physical, learning and developmental disabilities obtain a free and appropriate public education so that they can become contributing members of society. Although Congress set a goal of funding 40 percent of the additional costs of educating students with disabilities, it has never kept its promise to fully fund this program. I have and will continue to support mandatory funding of IDEA to ensure we fulfill our commitment to the education of all children.
The American dream is built on access to high-quality, affordable educational opportunities. Maintaining our nation's investments in higher education is also critical to making our economy strong and competitive in today's global economy.
Making college more affordable has been one of my top priorities while in Congress. I have worked to expand and strengthen the Federal Pell Grant Program, which provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and some post-baccalaureate students. I will continue to promote access to post-secondary education, encourage colleges to rein in tuition costs, strengthen the federal student loans, and expand college access and support for low-income and minority students.
Additionally, I am a strong supporter of our community colleges, which are a vital part of the postsecondary education delivery system. They serve almost half of the undergraduate students in the United States, providing open access to post-secondary education, preparing students for transfer to 4-year institutions, providing workforce development and skills training, and offering programs ranging from English as a second language to skills retraining to community enrichment programs or cultural activities.
Without community colleges, millions of students and adult learners would not be able to access the education they need to be prepared for further education or the workplace. Community colleges often are the access point for education and help millions of Americans make a better life for themselves.
Federal Student Loans
Higher education is a key that opens doors to opportunity and sustains a strong middle class in our country, and Congress has a duty to help make it accessible and affordable for more Americans. I recognize the importance of post-secondary education and support robust federal financial aid programs to make college more affordable.
We must find ways to support young people from our community who are seeking to better themselves through higher education and help students avoid going deep into debt. Twice a year, my office does a Paying for College Workshop, a free financial aid seminar that explains the federal financial aid process and different sources of funding available to students, including federal grants and loans. Representatives from local colleges are also present to give information and answer questions.
Due to growing enrollment and the rising cost of higher education, student loans play an increasingly important role in financing higher education. The federal government backs between 80-85 percent of students loans. The interest rate on undergraduate Stafford loans, the largest federal student loan program, was set at 3.4 percent until the freeze on this lowered rate expired on June 30, 2013 and the rate doubled to 6.8 percent.
In order to address this, Congress passed H.R. 1911, the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act, and it was signed into law by President Obama. This legislation ties interest rates on federally subsidized student loans to market rates using the 10-year Treasury note rate plus a premium, with caps to protect against inflation. Specifically, the interest rates will be set at the 10-year Treasury rate, plus 2.05 percent for subsidized and unsubsidized portions of undergraduate loans known as Stafford loans, 3.6 percent for graduate loans and 4.6 percent for PLUS loans. Overall interest rates will be capped at 8.25 percent, 9.5 percent and 10.5 percent, respectively.
While this legislation appears to reverse the interest rate hike that occurred on July 1, setting rates for Stafford Loans at 3.8 percent for this year and 4.6 percent for next year, it is essentially a bait and switch that will pile extra debt onto future students when the current record-low rates inevitably rise. Returning federal student loans to a system of market-based variable rates is an imprudent policy that seeks profits for deficit reduction at the expense of students struggling with the substantial and climbing cost of post-secondary education. I support low interest loans for students and hoped Congress would extend the 3.4 interest rate freeze until a permanent solution to the rising cost of college could be worked out during the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The interest rate caps included in the law are a step in the right direction; however, they are too high to meaningfully protect students when the temporarily low rates give way to rates that are even higher than the 6.8 percent rate this law attempts to fix.
Congress should be working to make education more affordable and accessible, not significantly increasing the cost of attending college. While federal financial aid programs and low interest loans have increased access to higher education, tuition costs continue to climb, and with it, the amount of debt incurred by students. As an advanced degree becomes more and more of a requirement for good paying jobs, it is vital that low interest loans be available so that students can access an affordable college education.