Competition is good for Mark Warner and me. It’s good for Coke and Pepsi. And it would be good for our public schools, which is why greater choice is a central part of the education reform agenda I am releasing today. Education reform is one of the five points in my economic growth agenda — the Ed Gillespie Agenda for Economic Growth (EG2) — because the continued underachievement of our public schools has a critical and long-term impact on our economic growth and global competitiveness.
It is clear that simply spending more money on education does not equate with better outcomes, considering that the United States spends more per student than all but a handful of other developed countries. Virginia students consistently rank in the top five in measures of academic performance, but the Commonwealth ranks 23rd in per-pupil spending.
My proposed reform principles for K-12 and higher education, including an emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education, will strengthen our schools and ensure America remains competitive for generations to come.
Every child must have an opportunity for a quality education. The growing diversity of alternative forms of education is a positive development, which is why I believe Congress should allow states to use federal funds to expand choice in education. If elected, I will also advocate for education reforms that increase the number of charter schools and provide greater support to high-performing charter schools. Additionally, dedicating federal funds to the creation of scholarships for low-income children could be a boon to true school choice for parents throughout the country.
We need to overhaul federal education funding and programs, eliminating duplicative programs, reducing mandates and providing more block grants to states. According to the Government Accountability Office in 2010, around 150 K-12 and early childhood education programs operate in 20 executive branch and independent federal agencies with total funding levels on average over $55 billion per year. Those federal programs determined to be necessary should be consolidated and some should be considered for block funding grants. These changes would simplify federal funding, lighten the burden of mandates coming from Washington and give states the opportunity to innovate in serving their parents, students, and teachers.
We are not getting bang for our buck in higher education, and many of our recent graduates are burdened by rising student loan debt in an anemic job market. In 2011, outstanding student loan debt passed $1 trillion dollars for the first time. From 2001 to 2011, we saw a 61 percent increase in the number of college graduates living at home, and a remarkable 46 percent of our recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed today. While implementing my EG2 Plan for Economic Growth will help with their job prospects, we also need to improve financial aid and higher education.
Student loan payments can be a heavy burden on recent graduates. Reform proposals such as correlating student loan payments with income levels would give these new entrants in our workforce the ability to manage their payments effectively. With the right policies, recent graduates can begin renting their own places to live, buying a car, and starting families while still paying off creditors.
Many of these recent graduates entered a system where financial aid and debt were secondary concerns. We need to do better in informing students earlier in the school selection process. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is complicated, confusing, and time-consuming. This is why I support simplifying the process as much as possible and accelerating the timeline for when students learn about their financial aid eligibility. The sooner this information is known, the better students and their parents can judge which school is the best fit.
Encouraging more higher education options will also give students more choice in deciding where to attend. A key hindrance to this is the antiquated federal accreditation system. By turning the system over to the states, with the Department of Education maintaining a role in overseeing federal dollars, a focus on decentralization and a reduction of outdated regulatory barriers could enhance competition throughout higher education.
Going in the opposite direction of this innovation is a proposal to tie Federal Student Aid to a new School Rating System, which would be a disturbing government overreach. While Senator Warner straddles the fence on this Postsecondary Institution Ratings System, I will oppose this one-size-fits-all national mandate. Encouraging states to promote transparency and working in cooperation with our universities will ensure far better outcomes than a system dictated by the Department of Education.
Lastly, throughout K-12 and higher education, we need to renew a focus on recruiting students into STEM fields and ensuring they receive valuable training that will meet the needs of employers and research institutions. Unfortunately the Department of Education’s efforts have produced mediocre results. We need to encourage industry and companies to work with states to create STEM academies, charter schools and scholarship opportunities for interested and promising students. According to the Department of Labor, 50 percent of economic expansion is the result of the 5 percent of our workforce that works in STEM fields.
In sum, we cannot be complacent about the continued underachievement of our K-12 public school system or the financial aid crisis in our higher education system. Unless we change our approach, we risk consigning the United States to a permanent decline. The reforms I outlined will boost education outcomes, give control back to parents and teachers, provide our children with better opportunities, and make college more affordable.