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Q&A: Lamar Alexander On Education In The New Congress

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., waves after speaking to supporters on Nov. 4 in Knoxville.
Wade Payne
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., waves after speaking to supporters on Nov. 4 in Knoxville.

Higher education, preschool funding, the Common Core and the future of No Child Left Behind are just a few of the education policies that will be in play under the new Republican-controlled Congress. How will these things change? We called Sen. Lamar Alexander to ask.

The Tennessee Republican is expected to become chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. There, he'll preside over the Republicans' education agenda, an issue he's been deeply engaged with for decades as a governor, presidential candidate, university president and U.S. education secretary.

What's your first priority?

Our first priority is to fix No Child Left Behind. The Republican proposal to fix NCLB would give states the option — not mandate — to take federal dollars and let those dollars follow children to the schools they attend. We want to expand choice, but my view is that the federal government shouldn't mandate it. ... Republicans would [also] transfer back to states the responsibility for deciding whether schools are succeeding or failing. Tennessee, Texas or New York would decide what the academic standards would be, what the curriculum would be, what to do about failing schools and how to evaluate teachers.

Do you support the Common Core State Standards?

I support giving states the right to decide whether to [adopt] the Common Core or not.

What about higher education? There's a lot of pressure to hold institutions more accountable for the $200 billion they get in federal aid and to bring the cost of college down.

The cost of higher education is more affordable than people think. At a community college, average tuition is $3,600. At a four-year public institution, it's $8[,000] to $9,000. Many students can get a Pell Grant they don't have to pay back, up to $5,000. We lend $100 billion every year in student loans at an interest rate of about 4 percent to people with no credit history. Tennessee is the first state to say two years of community college is free. I expect more states to do that.

I'm [also] working with [Colorado Democratic] Sen. Michael Bennet to take the 108-question student-aid application form, known as FAFSA, and reduce it to two questions: 'What's your family income?' and 'What's your family size?' ... The complexity of the form is discouraging students from attending college. So the greatest barrier to more college graduates is this federal application form.

What do you think about P resident Obama's plan to create a government-sponsored college ratings system based on things like graduation rates, student-loan default rates and the percentage of academically eligible low - income students a school enrolls? Is this an idea that you support and are likely to take up?

I think ratings are fine, but the U.S. Congress and Department of Education don't have any business trying to develop a rating system for 6,000 higher education institutions in the country. All we'll get is a lot of controversy, a lot of regulations and a lot of confusion. I mean, how is Washington going to compare Nashville Auto-Diesel College [currently known as Lincoln College of Technology] and Harvard? Leave that to accrediting agencies. Have a lot of transparency so students and families can find out all they can about colleges. We have a marketplace of colleges and universities. It has produced the best system of higher education in the world. We don't need the federal government overregulating it.

The Obama administration has proposed a $75 billion plan to make preschool universal for 4-year-olds. Where do you see that going in the new Congress?

The question is not whether early childhood education is a good idea. It's how best to encourage it. I didn't like the president's proposal because it would have the federal government paying half the bill after eight years but making all the rules about teacher salaries, class sizes, length of school day — decisions that should be made locally. I think a better approach would be to take the $22 billion the federal government already spends on early childhood education and give states more flexibility in combining those dollars with state, private and local dollars and give states the option of creating more vouchers for child care. The president's proposal looked to me like another Medicaid program.

What are you willing to collaborate on with the Obama administration?

Student loans is one area. We did a good job working with the president last year simplifying student loans and reducing the interest rate for undergraduates by half. We need to finish that job by simplifying the FAFSA and repayment options. Second, I would work with the president to fix NCLB. We're eight years overdue. We don't need the secretary of education issuing waivers and approving local school standards.

No matter what happens in Washington, though, it's states that will drive the nation's education debate on things like college access and affordability, preschool funding and adoption of the Common Core. Do you agree?

My answer to that is yes. And that's where it ought to be.

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