Issue Position: Education
As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Senator Obama is committed to providing every American with the opportunity to receive a quality education from pre-kindergarten to college or vocational school to job retraining programs.
Technology has created a quiet revolution by breaking down barriers and connecting the world's economies. Businesses have the ability to move jobs wherever there is an Internet connection. Countries like India and China start schooling their children earlier, keep them in school longer, and have a strategic emphasis on math, science, and technology. (The importance of educating American children for the global economy was the subject of a commencement address that Senator Obama delivered in June 2005 at Knox College.)
Senator Obama believes that we must do the same here in America. States and local school districts, as well as parents, teachers, and students must take the lead. The federal government must fund its mandates and assist in identifying and expanding the best programs.
However, while we work together to improve our schools, there is no substitute for strong parental involvement. Because education begins at home, parents must set high standards and inspirational examples for their children. As a father, Senator Obama believes we need to find the time and the energy to help motivate our kids to love learning. Parents can read to their children, discuss what they read, and make time for this by turning off the TV.
Head Start is the major Federal program supporting early childhood education. In Illinois, Head Start provides tens of thousands of children with a safe learning environment, while encouraging parents to be involved in their children's education. Senator Obama believes that Congress must increase overall funding for the program, especially funding for Early Head Start and for teacher education. In his role on the Senate HELP Committee, he has also worked to preserve the essential role of parents in the operation of local Head Start agencies.
Primary & Secondary Education
Local public schools not only educate our students, they often provide a focus for community activity. Local school districts often serve as laboratories for innovation in education, but too often, the good ideas and effective practices resulting from this innovation remain localized. Although the federal role in education is limited, one way the federal government can make the most of its scarce resources is by fostering innovation - identifying the best programs and practices, and helping expand them around the country.
In the 110th Congress, Senator Obama reintroduced the Innovation Districts for School Improvement Act. Under this initiative, school districts would submit plans on how they would become centers of reform. Twenty districts nationwide would be selected based on the best plans to increase achievement for all students and put qualified and successful teachers in all classrooms. These districts would receive substantial federal resources but would be required to implement systemic reforms and show convincing results. Senator Obama will continue to work with his colleagues on the HELP Committee to realize these important changes in the new Congress.
Differences in learning opportunities during the summer contribute to the achievement gaps that separate struggling poor and minority students from their middle-class peers. In January 2007, Senator Obama reintroduced the Summer Term Education Programs for Upward Progress Act (STEP UP) to address the achievement gaps among schoolchildren in the early grades. STEP UP establishes a grant program to support summer learning opportunities to be offered by local schools or community organizations. The bill was included in a comprehensive proposal to improve U.S. competitiveness that passed the Senate in July 2007, and was signed into law in August.
The teacher is most important resource in every classroom for advancing student learning and achievement. Too many teachers, especially in high-needs schools, are inadequately prepared for the challenges they face, and so leave the profession. Senator Obama has introduced legislation to support a better way of teacher preparation. Teaching Residency Programs train those new to the profession in a way similar to recent entrants to the medical profession, through residencies, where novices learn under the guidance of skilled mentors. Such programs have shown success in preparing teachers in several cities, both increasing student success, and decreasing turnover of inexperienced teachers. Obama's proposal for Teaching Residencies Programs was passed by the Senate during reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Senator Obama worked with Senator DeMint to introduce the Education Opportunity Act in the 109th Congress. This proposal would make grants available to low-income high school students to earn college credit at their local university or community college. Such grant support for high school students, who may not have exposure to college-level programs in their school, would allow students to qualify and earn credit for at least one college class each semester, giving them a greater chance for success on their path to a college diploma.
Senator Obama believes that every high school graduate should have the opportunity to go to college or vocational school. Student loans provide critical financial aid for many Americans. Not long ago, financial aid arrived primarily in the form of grants. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Graduates now have more and more difficulty keeping up with loan payments. At a minimum, our government has the responsibility to ensure that the most affordable and sensible loans are available to our students. But government and students are not the only ones who need to act. Tuition costs have been rising at an average rate of 8% per year, well above the overall rate of inflation. Colleges and universities must also do their part to rein in costs and pass those savings on to students.
To address this problem, Barack Obama's first bill as a U.S. Senator was the HOPE Act (Higher Education Opportunity Through Pell Grant Expansion Act) which would help make college more affordable for many Americans. The bill would increase the maximum Pell Grant from the then current limit of $4,050 to a new maximum of $5,100. Through his work on the Senate HELP Committee, Senator Obama has worked to increase the maximum Pell Award to $5,100 next year, and to $5,400 over the next several years, an increase of 25% over current levels.