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Statement by Senator Mark Pryor On Investing in Our Schools

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Statement by Senator Mark Pryor On Investing in our Schools

Much of the news these days and our nation's focus have been centered on our commitment in Iraq. The stakes for us and the Iraqi people could not be higher so it makes sense that we direct most of our attention there. But I would also submit that Congress and this Administration cannot forget about other vital priorities for our nation, including the importance of educating our children.

I was not a member of the Senate when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed two years ago. But I do remember, as a parent, that it was truly remarkable watching the bipartisan effort to ensure our children received the quality education they deserved. This bill set high academic standards, demanded accountability and called for the resources to complete the task.

Unfortunately, the reality of Washington's commitment to the No Child Left Behind Act has been disheartening. The funding levels in President Bush's 2004 budget are inadequate and do not live up to the amounts he promised when he signed the Act. Many states, including Arkansas, are facing their worst fiscal crises in decades, which is why I believe it is even more critical that Washington do its part to provide much-needed funding to help states better comply with federal mandates, such as those established in the No Child Left Behind Act.

In September, as Congress considered the fiscal year 2004 spending bill for education, I fought hard to increase federal aid for our schools, especially in regard to the education of disadvantaged children, rural schools districts and special education programs.

I was a cosponsor of an amendment to increase Title I funding in Arkansas and across the nation. Title I provides federal aid for the education of disadvantaged children. The amendment would have increased Title I funding by more than $49 million in Arkansas, helping schools serve an additional 30,466 low-income children. The additional funding could help
Arkansas hire up to 1,363 teachers, reduce class sizes and provide specialized instruction in math and reading aimed at helping children meet state standards. I was dismayed that this amendment failed and that Arkansas will not be receiving this much-needed funding.

I was also a cosponsor to an amendment that would have increased funding for the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). The program provides a funding stream to help rural schools overcome their unique challenges, and the amendment would have increased funding to $10.7 million for Arkansas in fiscal year 2004. Indeed, schools in our state have benefited from the REAP program by enabling rural school district to enhance teacher recruitment and retention, improve educational technology and provide after-school enrichment activities. Unfortunately, this amendment also failed.

While there were major disappointments during consideration of this spending bill, there were some bright spots. I am particularly pleased that the Senate strengthened its commitment to those children who need our help the most, those children who have been left out and left behind, those who have been denied the opportunity of an education. There are roughly 58,000 disabled children in Arkansas who do not reap the full benefits promised to them by the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act. We were able to increase funding for disabled students by $2.2 billion next year. As a result of this funding, Arkansas schools could receive an additional $22 million for its special education programs. I truly believe that this money will go a long way to help provide disabled children more teachers, provide those teachers better training, reduce class size and create more efficiency in diagnostics. I will continue to fight for additional funding when Congress considers the IDEA Reauthorization bill in the coming months.

It is important that every child in Arkansas and across the nation receive the absolute best public education possible, regardless of the child's hometown, income level, race or ability. There is no commitment we can keep and no service we can perform that is more important to the domestic well-being of this country than the education of our children. The future of our towns, our states and our nation depend on the decisions we make now; our surest comfort is to know that we have made sound investments for our future.

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