Water Resources Development Act of 2013

Floor Speech

By:  Chris Coons
Date: May 8, 2013
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. COONS. Madam President, as the son and grandson of classroom teachers, as a father myself, as someone for whom education played a central role in my life, and as a passionate believer in the power of education to change others' lives, I rise today to talk about a bill that is one of the most important to me that I have moved as a Senator.

The fact is if we look at the American national condition, the lack of access to higher education as well as the lack of an opportunity for a quality education is one of the greatest problems we face. Inequality in having some real hope, some real promise of a shot at college defines and distinguishes the drivers of social inequality in America in ways it has not in decades. If we want to ensure going forward that American workers can compete in the global economy, if we want to ensure a country that is capable of living up to our promise of liberty and justice for all, if we want to deal with one of the biggest civil rights issues in our country, then we have to ensure every child has an equal chance for high-quality education regardless of the ZIP Code they are born into.

Long before I was elected to public office, I spent years working with a nonprofit education center called ``I Have A Dream'' Foundation. In my role there, I visited schools all over the United States. More often than not, these were schools in very tough communities and neighborhoods, schools that were in public housing developments or that were in some of the most forlorn and troubled neighborhoods in all of America.

What struck me over and over when I would go into an elementary school and talk to a group of young kids and ask: What do you dream of? What do you hope to be when you grow up? They would raise their hands, and none of them said: I dream of being in a gang; I dream of being in jail; I dream of being a drug dealer; I dream of dying before I turn 20. They would say: I dream of being a Senator or a lawyer or owning my own business or being a star in the NBA or being a success. The dreams we hear from kids in elementary schools are the same regardless of the community in America. Yet the outcomes are so desperately different.

What I saw in the nearly 20 years I was active with the "I Have A Dream'' Foundation was that the young people who came from a community, family, or school where there was little or no experience or expectation of a college education sent a powerful, persistent, and negative message at a very early age--that college is not for them. They are told indirectly that it is not affordable, it is not accessible, it is not part of the plan for their future. Those messages have a cumulative, powerful, and consequential impact.

Very few of the 50 "Dreamers'' from the east side of Wilmington that my family and I worked very closely with had any expectation of a college education. In 1988 when our chapter of ``I Have A Dream'' Foundation promised them the opportunity for a higher education through a scholarship, we could see the change. First we saw the change in their teachers and parents, then in their mentors and classmates, and ultimately we saw it in them. We saw a change in their hopes and their expectations.

The most powerful thing the "I Have A Dream'' Foundation did in our chapter, and in dozens of chapters around the country, was to hold up a mirror to young people of their future that was a brighter and more promising future than they had ever dreamed of on their own. They were challenged to walk through that open door and make college not just a distant dream, not something they heard of or watched on TV, but something that became a part of their lived life, and to change their outcomes.

That experience has inspired the bill I introduced in the last Congress, and I am most personally connected to in this Congress.

Last year I found a Republican partner who shares my passion for expanding access to college and for making it more affordable. That partner is Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Some folks have noticed that here in the Senate we don't always get along and we don't always agree and sometimes partisanship divides us. I have been very pleased to have this strong and able partner in moving forward a bipartisan bill which we named the American Dream Accounts Act. This is a bill that bridges the opportunity gap by connecting students, teachers, parents, and mentors to create a new generation of higher education achievers.

There are too many American kids today who are cut off from the enormous potential of a higher education. The numbers are grim. If someone comes from a low-income family, the chance that student will complete a college degree by the time that person turns 25 is about 1 in 10 at best.

In order to have the prospect of employment and opportunity of accumulating wealth and providing an education and security for our family and kids, a college education is essential these days. We in the Federal Government spend billions of dollars on making higher education affordable through Pell grants, yet do almost nothing to make it clear to children at the earliest age that this funding will be available to them.

In my home State of Delaware, our Governor Jack Markell and our first lady Carla Markell have done a wonderful job of incorporating the power of this insight and lesson. They are ensuring there is a State-funded scholarship and network of engaged mentors and real reform in our public schools. We don't tell kids, even in our State, in elementary school of the possibilities that lie ahead of them in a way that changes their expectations.

That is what this bill will hopefully do. It encourages partnerships between schools and colleges, nonprofits and businesses. It allows them to develop individualized student accounts, such as their Facebook account, married to a college savings account; individual accounts that are secure, Web-based, personal, and portable; accounts that contain information about each student's academic preparedness and financial literacy. It is something that combines a portfolio of their entire education experience with the very real savings for the future of higher education we want to pull them toward from their earliest years.

Instead of forcing motivated parents or concerned teachers or interested mentors or empowered students--instead of forcing all of these folks to track down these different resources separately, this legislation, this idea would connect them across existing silos and across existing education programs at the State and Federal level.

So tomorrow Senator Rubio and I will reintroduce this legislation as the bipartisan American Dream Accounts Act of 2013. We are working hard to earn the support of our colleagues in the Senate and in the House, and I will keep at this for as long as it takes.

The American Dream Accounts Act addresses the longstanding challenges and barriers to college access: connectivity, financial resources, early intervention, and portability. Let me briefly speak to each of those.

First, connectivity. The journey from elementary school, to high school, to higher education is a long one, and for a student to be successful it takes lots of engaged and attentive adults--motivated parents, concerned teachers, supportive family. So many students in our schools all over this country disengage or drop out along the way because they are not connected, they are not supported by those concerned and engaged adults. The American Dream Accounts Act takes advantage of modern technology to create Facebook-inspired individualized accounts--an opportunity to deliver personalized hubs of information that would connect these kids and sustain and support them throughout the entire journey of education by continuing to remind them of the promise of higher education and its affordability.

Second, these dream accounts would connect kids with college savings opportunities. Studies show that students who know there is a dedicated college savings account in their name are seven times more likely to go to college than peers without one. Think about that for a moment. States such as Delaware and our Nation invest billions of dollars in programs to make higher education affordable. Yet so few of the kids I have worked with all over this country in the ``I Have a Dream'' program have any idea. They have never heard of Senator Pell. They don't know Pell grants exist. They don't live in States that have the HOPE scholars, the Aspire scholars, or the Dream scholarships that a number of States have, and they don't know they will be there for them when they are of age to go to college. Why don't we tell them early? Why don't we change their expectations? That is one of the things this program would do. And it is not a new idea; it is a demonstrated one that we know works.

The third piece of this American Dream Accounts Act is early intervention. As I said, States and Federal programs that provide billions of dollars in support to make college affordable don't connect with kids early enough. By letting them know early, we can change their ultimate orientation and outcomes.

The last important piece is portability. One of the things I saw in my own experience with my Dreamers, the students in the ``I Have a Dream'' program I helped to run in Delaware, was just how often they moved. Children growing up in poverty, in families facing unexpected challenges, relocate over and over and bounce from school to school, district to district, often facing overstretched teachers with full classrooms who, when they move midyear into a new school, don't get any background information or insight on the student who has moved into their classroom. So instead of being welcomed and engaged in a positive way, sometimes they feel and are disconnected and develop into discipline problems or students who are difficult to teach. The mobility that comes with poverty sometimes also leads to disconnection from education.

This robust, online, secure, individualized account would empower teachers to connect with parents, to connect with mentors, and to know the entire education history of the student newly before them. So no matter what disruptions or challenges a student might face as they travel through the long journey of education, their own individual American dream act--their own portfolio of their dreams and their activities and their progress--would be there with them.

Our Nation's long-term economic competitiveness requires a highly trained and highly educated workforce, and our Nation's commitment to a democracy and to a country of equal opportunity demands that we do everything we can to make real the hope of higher education for kids no matter the ZIP Code into which they are born, no matter their background. While we spend billions on making higher education affordable, we aren't delivering it effectively enough to change that future. What I saw in my years with the ``I Have a Dream'' program was bright faces, raised arms, hope, and opportunity that sadly was not as often as it could be realized. This program, this connectivity, this new type of account is a way to make real on that promise.

We can meet this challenge by connecting students with a broad array of higher education options, informing them about them early, whether it is vocational school or job training, community college or 4-year universities. Not everyone is made for a 4-year higher education degree. This would connect kids with all of the different opportunities for skill training and higher education that are out there. It also would support students as they identify the type of education best for them, the career they most want, and give them the tools to get there.

As I visit schools across my own State of Delaware, one thing is clear: All of these different resources currently exist in different ways and at different stages of education, but they are not connected in a way that weaves together students, parents, mentors, and the resources of our highly motivated, highly engaged State.

So this vision--one that has stayed with me from my time at ``I Have a Dream'' to my service here as a Senator--is that when we ask a roomful of elementary school kids in the future, ``What do you dream of, what is your hope,'' when their hands shoot up in the air and they list all of the different dreams they have, regardless of background or income or community, we can make that possible. We can make our investments real, and we can make the dream of equal opportunity a reality.

This year, with the support of lots of groups, including the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a wonderful group called Opportunity Nation, the First Focus Campaign for Children, we are hopeful that bipartisan support for this American dream accounts idea will simply continue to grow. Let's work together to empower students and parents of all backgrounds to achieve their dreams from the earliest age.


Madam President, I rise today to speak about our current impasse over the progress of the Federal budget. I have been a Senator for just a little over 2 years. I have presided over this Chamber a great deal, as has the Senator now presiding. I have listened to dozens of speeches from colleagues--in particular, Republican colleagues--upset that this Chamber and the Budget Committee on which I serve hadn't passed a budget in several years. But this year we passed a budget, finally. We went through the long and grinding process known here in Washington as vote-arama where we considered, debated, and disposed of over 100 amendments over hours and hours of deliberation and debate and voting on this floor, and we passed a budget.

It has been 46 days since the Senate passed our budget, but we still need to reconcile it with the House of Representatives' budget for it to become a forceful resolution, a budget resolution that drives the decisions of the Congress. It is important we do that because it has been 66 days since the sequester kicked in.

I know ``sequester'' is Washington-speak, but all of us as Senators are hearing from our home States the very real, very human impact of these across-the-board spending cuts that have begun to really bite. We hear about potential furloughs of men and women who serve at Dover Air Force Base. We hear about the tens of thousands of children being kicked out of needed Head Start Programs. We hear about the thousands of women not getting the breast cancer screenings they need, and we hear about the hundreds of thousands of children not getting the vaccines they are supposed to get. The impacts of the sequester are becoming stronger and broader and more negative all across our country.

The sequester exists because of a lack of political will to come together and resolve a fundamentally different vision between the Senate and the House enacted in our respective budgets. This sequester exists because we haven't come together across the House and the Senate in the way that for 200 years and more this Congress has done. When we pass a bill and when the House passes a bill, it is supposed to go to conference or reconciliation, resolution, and ultimately passage. Here is our chance.

Why would Republicans actively keep us from going to conference to finalize a budget, especially after years of coming to this floor and giving speeches, claiming over and over how terrible it was that we would not pass a budget in the Senate? Americans are tired of this dysfunction. In my view, today Republicans are manufacturing a crisis by preventing the Senate and House from coming together to reconcile our budgets in conference.

As I said, I am a member of the Budget Committee, and I can say with some detailed knowledge, as can the Presiding Officer, that there are real differences between the budget adopted here in the Senate and the budget adopted in the House. I believe the Democratic budget promotes growth and the Republican budget focuses on cuts. I believe ours prioritizes the middle class while the other prioritizes more tax cuts for the wealthiest. In my view, ours prioritizes balance; the other, politics. I think our budget puts us on the path toward job creation while the other takes a path to austerity. But we will never reconcile these two budgets, achieve a shared path forward, and set aside this terrible sequester if we don't go to conference.

Reconciling these two budgets is the definition of what I have heard Member after Member come to the floor and call for, what we have heard here in the Senate called regular order--the process set out by the Founders of this Nation and to which we should return.

These political games, in my view, are destroying this institution. I think it is no wonder the opinion of the average American across this country of this institution simply sinks lower and lower.

What is standing in the way of our progress on this budget at this point is repeated Republican objections. It is my hope that they will step aside and allow us to walk the corridor to the House, get to the conference table, and resolve our budget differences.

With that, I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.


Help us stay free for all your Fellow Americans

Just $5 from everyone reading this would do it.