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Policy Update: Education Reform

I’ll be the first to tell you that education has not always been a focal point in Congress, but it is increasingly becoming one of the most critical domestic issues facing our country. As such, in this week’s newsletter (which you can sign up to receive here), I wanted to share my views on education reform and update you on the work Congress is doing to improve and strengthen our education system.

America continues to decline globally when it comes to student achievement; we rank 20th in science and 27th in math out of the 34 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. And we continue to spend more money on education than these countries – $11,841 per student on elementary and secondary education and $26,021 per student on postsecondary education, respectively–35 percent and 200 percent higher than the OECD average. We must take a step back and reevaluate what’s working and what isn’t. While it is certainly important to provide adequate resources, all too often we look to increased funding to solve inadequacies and increase student achievement, rather than looking at fundamentally reforming our education system through innovation, greater state control of their own classrooms, and eliminating burdensome regulations. 

In a perfect world, from an early age, parents would have the ability to compare, evaluate, and select the best education for their child based on their specialized needs regardless of income, zip code, or social stature.  Now, that is a lofty goal, but there are steps we must start taking now to move closer to such a system for our students and for America to remain competitive globally. 

There’s no silver bullet that will alleviate the issues facing our education system, but many will agree that what we’re doing right now simply isn’t working and that we can do better. In Congress, the House took a critical step to improve K-12 education by passing the Student Success Act (H.R. 5) in July. This bill gives states, rather than the federal government, the power to adopt standards for math, reading, and science and explicitly prohibits the federal government from coercing states into adopting uniform federal standards, such as Common Core. It also eliminates the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) evaluation, allows states to develop their own school-accountability systems, requires student assessments of math and reading standards only once per year, allows low-income students’ funding to transfer between schools through Title I portability, and consolidates 65 unnecessary programs into a Local Academic Flexible Grant to allow individual schools to determine how to best meet students’ needs. Overall, the Student Success Act strives to put decision-making back in the hands of our states and communities – where it belongs. I continue to be impressed with the innovation taking place at the state and local levels and by the initiative Governors are taking despite the haphazard federal intrusion that has reached an all-time high over the past decade.

The Senate passed its own reforms in the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (S. 1177), and it will need to be conferenced with H.R. 5 to work out the differences. For the sake of our students, I remain hopeful that this will happen sooner rather than later.

I believe we also need to expand educational options – especially higher education. This is why I proudly joined Congressman Jason Smith (R-MO-8) to introduce H.R. 3409, a bill to help make college more affordable by allowing students to earn tax-free, work-based scholarships at Work Colleges, like Ecclesia right here in Springdale, Arkansas. With the cost of college skyrocketing across our nation and 53 percent of college graduates being under or unemployed, work colleges provide an excellent opportunity for students to earn a valuable degree at little-to-no cost while gaining critical hands-on work experience prospective employers desire. I cannot stress enough the importance of making critical reforms to higher education to ensure students and parents have the necessary information to evaluate higher education institutions, in order to have the ability to make the best financial choice.

But we can’t stop at work colleges. I believe we need to have a greater focus on career and technical education, sometimes referred to as “vocational training.” For years, there has been a certain stigma attached to choosing a vocational education route, but increasingly, employers are looking for technical skills – obtained from an associate degree or a technical certificate, not a liberal arts degree – to fill their good-paying jobs. I applaud our state for recognizing that with a changing economy and labor force, our education system must also adapt and continue to evolve in order to serve as an effective pipeline for preparing students for the workforce or higher education. It will most certainly ensure that Arkansas’s students are employable and companies are drawn to Arkansas, which helps ensure a growing, thriving local economy.

Many high schools are even beginning to offer opportunities to earn these credentials before high school graduation and are working with local businesses to streamline curriculum and facilitate job opportunities for students right out of high school. With 20 percent of students never reaching their high school graduation and only roughly half of students who seek a bachelor’s degree completing the degree within six years, I am encouraged by this greater, concerted effort to make students aware at an earlier age the options available for them.

As the debate on education reform continues in Congress, I will continue to pursue ways to promote educational reform and help alleviate states from burdensome federal education regulations that will continue to impede states’ abilities to leverage technology and innovation to deliver a more high quality, cost-effective education to the next generation.

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