For the past 50 years, the United States has actively supported the expansion and improvement of higher education through a generous funding system that encourages autonomy, choice, and competition. Our institutions of higher education have helped produce the research that has been responsible for creating half our new jobs since World War II. They have sculpted an educated leadership and citizenry that have made our democracy work and made it possible to defend our freedoms.
It is past time to take the formula that has worked so well to help create the best colleges in the world and use it to help create the best schools for our children. That is why I am proposing a different way of spending some new federal dollars for schools: create a "Pell Grant for Kids," a $500 scholarship that follows middle- and low-income children to the school or other academic program of their parents' choice.
Parents could use these Pell Grants to help their schools pay for more math teachers and or for new art programs - or parents could purchase English or music lessons or other services that schools don't provide.
The model for Pell Grants for Kids would be today's Pell Grants for college students, federal dollars that - with student loans - follow 60 percent of America's college students to the institutions of their choice.
Pell Grants for Kids would provide more federal dollars for schools with fewer strings and more local control over how the money is spent. In its first year, Pell Grants for Kids would cost $2.5 billion new federal dollars, providing every middle- and low-income student in kindergarten and first grade with a $500 scholarship. Congress could add grades each year.
No existing program would be cut. Most of the new scholarship money should be spent improving public schools.
This has been both a Democratic and Republican idea. In 1979, Democratic Senators Pat Moynihan and Abe Ribicoff proposed amending the Higher Education Act to make elementary and secondary students eligible for Pell Grants. In 1992, Republican President George H.W. Bush proposed a "GI Bill for Kids," a pilot program offering $1,000 scholarships to K-12 students.
Pell Grants for Kids is an even better idea today because it would:
- Help pay for the requirements of No Child Left Behind;
- Reduce inequity in school funding;
- Avoid higher local property taxes;
- Avoid increased federal control of local schools; and
- Give parents more say and more choices in the education of their children.
If the GI Bill for Veterans and Pell Grants helped to create opportunity and the best colleges in the world by letting scholarships follow students to the colleges of their choice, then why not use the same strategy to help close the achievement gap and create the best schools?
Lamar Alexander is a Republican United States Senator from Tennessee. He served as U.S. Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993; as president of the University of Tennessee; and as Governor of Tennessee.