Mr. President, centuries ago, Aristotle wrote, "All who have meditated in the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of the youth." His words still hold true today. Educating our children is a critical component in their quest for personal success and fulfillment, but it also plays a pivotal role in the success of our nation economically, intellectually, civically and morally.
Like many Americans, I have grave concerns about the current condition of our nation's education system. If a report card on our educational system were sent home today, it would be full of unsatisfactory and incomplete marks. In fact, it would be full of "D's " and "F's." These abominable grades demonstrate our failure to meet the needs of our nation's students in kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Failure is clearly evident throughout the educational system. One prominent illustration of our nation's failure is seen in the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study(TIMSS.) Over forty countries participated in the 1996 study which tested science and mathematical abilities of students in the fourth, eighth and twelfth grades. Tragically, American students scored lower than students in other countries. According to this study, our twelfth graders scored near the bottom, placing 19th out of 21 nations in math and 16th in science, while scoring at the absolutely bottom in physics.
Meanwhile, students in countries which are struggling economically, socially and politically, such as Russia, outscored U.S. children in math and scored far above them in advanced math and physics. Clearly, we must make significant changes in our children's academic performance in order to remain a viable force in the world economy.
We can also see our failure when we look at the federal government's efforts to combat illiteracy. We spend over $8 billion a year on programs to eradicate illiteracy across the country. Yet, we have not seen any significant improvement in literacy in any segment of our population. Today, more than 40 million Americans cannot read a menu, instructions, medicine labels or a newspaper. And, tragically, four out of ten children in third grade cannot read.
For too long, Washington has been creating new educational programs which provide good sound-bites for politicians, make great campaign slogans, or serve the specific needs of select interests groups, but completely ignore the fundamental academic needs of our children. The time has come for us to free our schools from the shackles of the federal government and give them the freedom and the tools to educate children.
The first step is putting parents back in charge. Federal education dollars should be spent where they do the most good. The ED-ACT would funnel millions of dollars directly into our classrooms, rather than wasting education dollars on federal red tape. By sending federal elementary and secondary education funds directly to local education agencies (LEAs), schools will be able to utilize the funds for the unique needs of their students rather than wasting their time jumping through hoops for government bureaucrats. Giving the money directly to the LEAs with strong accountability requirements for the academic performance and improvement of our children is the right thing to do.
We must have higher learning expectations for our children, but we cannot and should not have these standards controlled at the national level. States and local communities must control the development, implementation and assessment of academic standards. This bill would prohibit federal funds from being used to develop or implement national education tests. National tests and standards only result in new bureaucracies, depriving parents of the opportunity to manage the education of their children.
ED-ACT strengthens and reauthorizes the successful Troops to Teachers program. As many of my colleagues know, the Troops to Teachers program was initially created in 1993 to assist military personnel affected by defense downsizing who were interested in utilizing their knowledge, professional skills and expertise as teachers. Unfortunately, the authorization for this program is set to expire at the end of this fiscal year.
Local school districts across the city are facing a shortage of two million teachers over the next decade, and the Troops to Teachers program is an important resource to help schools address this shortfall by recruiting, funding and retaining new teachers to make America's children ready for tomorrow, particularly in the areas of math, reading and science.
ED-ACT would also encourage states to ensure that all Americans are fluent in English, while helping develop innovative initiatives to promote the importance of foreign language skills. The ability to speak one or more languages, in addition to English, is a tremendous resource to the U.S. because it enhances our competitiveness in global markets. Multilingualism also enhances our nation's diplomatic efforts and leadership role on the international front by fostering greater communication and understanding between people of all nations and cultures.
ED-ACT provides educational opportunities for disadvantaged children by providing parents and students the freedom to choose the best school for their unique academic needs, while encouraging schools to be creative and responsive to the needs of all students. This three-year demonstration would allow up to ten states or localities to implement a voucher program empowering low-income parents with more options for their child's education. Parents should be allowed to use their tax dollars to send their children to the school of their choice, public or private. Tuition vouchers would give low-income families the same choice.
ED-ACT also creates additional financial opportunities for parents, guardians and communities to plan for the educational expenses of their children. First, it would increase the amount allowed to be contributed to a higher education IRA from $500 to $1,000 annually. Under current law, the maximum amount which could be saved for a child throughout their lifetime is $9,000, which would not cover the basic costs of tuition at a private institution, let alone books, foods and living expenses for a student. This amount barely covers the tuition at a public four- year institution, but that is before factoring in inflation, expenses, room and board. In my home state of Arizona, a four-year degree from one of the three state colleges costs about $8,800 --- and that is just for tuition, not books, food, room and board. In addition, ED-ACT allows a $500 tax credit for taxpayers who make a voluntary contribution to public or private schools.
This bill would also help develop better educational tools for our children by gathering and analyzing pertinent data regarding some of our most vulnerable students, while collecting information about how we can ensure the best teachers are in our classrooms.
Finally, the last section of the ED-ACT reduces the bureaucratic costs at the Department of Education by thirty-five percent no later than October 1, 2004. Far too many resources are spent on funding bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., rather than teaching our children.
Thomas Jefferson said, "The purpose of education is to create young citizens with knowing heads and loving hearts." If we fail to give our children the education they need to nurture their heads and hearts, then we threaten their futures and the future of our nation. The bill I am introducing today is an important step towards ensuring that our children have both the love in their hearts and the knowledge in their heads to not only dream, but to make their dreams a reality.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a copy of this bill be printed in the record at the conclusion of my remarks.