Education Policy Address
Senator John Edwards
University of Maryland, College Park
November 21, 2002
Remarks as prepared for delivery

This is the last in a series of three speeches I am giving that set out some ideas for our country's direction. The first speech was about America's role in the world, and the second was about our economy. This speech will be about education.

At the heart of the American dream there's a simple bargain; if you work hard and play by the rules, America will give you the opportunity to build a better future for you and your children.

For our parents and grandparents, that often meant starting on the bottom-rung in the local company and working your way up the ladder. You might move around, you might get transferred, but you pretty much knew your course once you set out on it. Your neighbors often lived a pretty similar life, and your community was a support network.

Today, we live in a vastly different world. You can't just work your way up the company ladder for the rest of your life. More and more children live in single-parent families, or families where both parents work. Communities aren't as connected anymore, and they aren't as insulated anymore.

Now, as never before, education is the key to opportunity.

For me that's not an abstraction. My parents didn't go to college. Because of their love and hard work, and with the help of some good schools and great teachers, I was able to go to Clemson University. I played football there but didn't get a scholarship, and I had to leave after my first semester because I couldn't afford it. I was able to transfer to a great public university, North Carolina State, and I worked my way through school there–on a road crew, in a mill, and at UPS unloading trucks for a while. I graduated from State, went to law school at our rival, UNC, and eventually built a life I frankly never dreamed I'd have. My life would be a little better if one of my schools had won the NCAA basketball championship last year.

Without that combination of support from loving parents, terrific teachers, and public schools at every level, I would never be standing here today. Unfortunately, that combination is getting harder and harder to find in America. Too many kids are trapped in schools that don't work. Too many kids who beat the odds and succeed in school can't afford to go on to college, even as kids with the most advantages get special privileges.

We have to change that. In America, no child should be able to take success for granted, and every child should be able to go as far as his God-given talents and hard work will take him.

Today, it's too hard for too many Americans to climb up the ladder of success.

Our country was born in a democratic revolution, and now it is time for reforms that get us back to our democratic roots.

Here are the principles on which I base my vision for education in America, and I believe nothing less is good enough.

1.In America, there should be a good teacher in every classroom in every school.

2.In America, every school should pay enough attention to every child to know if he or she needs extra help – or has a special talent.

3.In America, every student should expect to graduate high school and get enough education to compete and win in today's economy.

4.In America, every qualified student who works hard and wants to go to college should be able to go to college, and they should have a fair shot at getting into the school they want to attend.

These are not just my ideals. They are America's ideals. We ought to bring all of America's energy and enterprise and passion to making these ideals into the reality for every American child.

Because we have so much work to do, it's disappointing that the president has done so little. Almost a year ago, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act and made a promise to America's children: We're going to raise standards for schools and for students and make sure that everyone can reach those high standards. In other words, we will demand more, and we will give you more help to get the job done.

That's a good bargain and we should keep it, but even before the ink was dry President Bush walked away from education reform. Last winter, as he toured the country touting the law, he proposed the smallest education budget increase in almost a decade, including woefully inadequate support for special education, class size reduction, and school construction. He's shown more enthusiasm for a Supreme Court decision on private schools than for our own law to improve public schools.

This is not the time to get distracted. It is not the time for victory laps. It is the time to bring leadership, commitment, and resources to bear so we can guarantee that education reform works for all our children.

Part of that means adequately funding the promises we made in the new law. We have raised standards without offering teachers and principals the resources to meet those standards. We used to call this an unfunded mandate. I call it unfair, unwise, and unacceptable.

Yet money without reform is not enough. We need to offer more reform and more resources at the same time.

Let me explain how.

A great education starts with a great teacher. It's as simple as that. Study after study shows that no single factor at school has a larger impact on the quality of a child's education than the quality of his or her teacher. Let me say that again: no single factor at school has a larger impact than teacher quality.

In my state of North Carolina, under the great education governor Jim Hunt, we didn't succeed in turning around schools just because of higher standards. We succeeded because we raised teacher salaries, mentored new teachers, and brought more great teachers into the classroom. That's our country's challenge today.

The education bill we passed included a promise to put a high-quality teacher in every classroom by 2006. But unless we make a serious, forceful national effort to meet that goal, it is a promise we'll fail to keep. And if we do that, if we fail to keep that promise, we will have failed our children. A school year spent in a classroom without a quality teacher at the blackboard can mean a child doesn't learn to read or doesn't learn basic math while other students his age are mastering those skills. Those early school years are critical. We can't afford to lose a year, because too often it means losing a child.

There are thousands of fantastic teachers across America today, but the truth is there still aren't enough highly qualified teachers. We are now losing good teachers more rapidly than we are gaining them. And each year, too many of our most talented young people decide that the rewards of teaching are too low for challenges that are too high, and they choose the larger salaries and higher status of other professions.

The problems are the worst in the poorest school districts. It's a basic principle of compensation that you pay more for harder work, yet our school system today does the reverse. The urban and rural districts that need good teachers the most pay them the least. This makes no sense.

At the end of the day, the reason we have a teacher quality crisis is simple: We don't do enough to reward teachers, and we don't ask enough in return. We don't pay them professional salaries, encourage professional development, give them professional respect, or trust their professional judgment.

We need a new bargain for teachers that rewards more, and asks more. It's time for an intensive, national effort to encourage more bright young people to become teachers, to persuade good teachers to remain teachers and get them into the toughest classrooms, and to make sure those who continue to teach our kids are performing well.

First, the national government needs to make good teaching a national priority. We should say to the smartest young people in America: if you make a five-year commitment to teach in a place or a subject where top-flight teachers are in short supply, then we will pay for your college education. Tens of thousands of new, talented, dedicated teachers could change the face of our high-poverty schools. And we should give a $5,000 mortgage tax credit to teachers in poor areas who are willing to buy homes in the communities where they teach so they can be more available to parents and students.

Second, instead of setting far-off deadlines and walking away, Washington should give states the resources and responsibility to make sure there's a good teacher in every classroom. I propose a new, flexible teacher quality grant for states with one simple premise at its core: we said you had to have a qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006; now we're going to put our money where our mouth is. Today, the federal government spends $3 billion a year on teacher quality. If we're serious about good teachers, I believe we should at least double that. The money we spend on good teachers will be the best money we've ever spent.

We should ask states for three things in return for that investment:

First, you've got to pay teachers better, and pay more to teachers who agree to teach in places and subjects where we need them most.

Second, you have to make sure the resources target the teacher shortage where it is worst, in poor rural and urban districts that can't attract the talent they deserve. The truth is, there are many school districts that can afford to pay teachers good salaries already. We need to focus our efforts where good teachers are paid the least and needed the most.

Third, you should hold teachers accountable for results by streamlining the tenure process and passing the pioneering tenure reform law that North Carolina and nine other states have passed that allows teachers to be removed for poor performance. Good teachers deserve to be honored, valued, and rewarded for it. But let's face it: there are some teachers who just don't measure up, and it hurts our children – and good teachers everywhere – if the system just looks the other way. Teachers who don't measure up don't belong in the classroom. The best education for our children must come first.

The president continues to tout private school vouchers. I oppose them because they divert resources and energy from reform and divert students into the only schools that don't have to meet high standards. Proponents advocate two things–competition and parental choice–but misleadingly suggest these are only possible with private school vouchers.

Competition is good for schools, and parental choice is good for kids. But we can give kids competition and choice within our accountable, public system.

Today, many public school choice programs are having trouble because there aren't enough schools or parents involved. We shouldn't give up on these programs; we should make them work by making a billion-dollar investment in public school choice. We'll say to districts that need it most: If you'll provide universal public school choice for your students, we'll help you pay for it.

You should give every parent a choice where to send their kids to school; provide transportation within the district; encourage charter schools, making sure they meet the same standards as other schools, and shutting down the ones that don't; and make the new funds portable so that a student brings money to the school he chooses and takes money from the school he leaves. These policies will help fulfill the promise of public school choice.

Getting great teachers into every classroom and expanding school choice will improve education at every level. But we need to pay special attention to our high schools.

Today, federal policy is overwhelmingly focused on improving elementary and middle schools, even though our high schools have very serious problems. Compared to students in other countries, the performance of American students seriously drops off in high school. The Hispanic community that contributes so invaluably to our country is fighting hard against dropout rates that are too high. Just when our young people need to be doing better because they're preparing to take on more responsibilities, the reality is many are doing worse. That has got to change.

We want every American who wants it and will work for it to be ready for additional education or training after high school, whether at a four-year university, a community college, or a trade school. To do that, we should do four things to transform our high schools so they do a dramatically better job at preparing kids for college or other training.

First, we need to shrink the size of many of our high schools. Over the last fifty years, the average enrollment in high schools is up a whopping 500 percent. And study after study shows that, when it comes to schools, bigger is not better for students, teachers, or principals. Kids perform better and stay in school longer in smaller schools. They're less likely to use drugs or commit crimes. Their teachers move less and teach longer.

I grew up in a small town where the storeowners knew all the neighborhood kids and people kept an eye on kids when they got in trouble. Many Americans still live in those kinds of towns, but many more don't.

Even in the largest cities, young people ought to be able to find caring communities, and one of the places they should find them is in the schools. Schools should be places where the adults know kids' names and know what's special about them, where they know if a kid's got special talent in science or art, or if a kid is on the edge of trouble. We need a major new effort to make high schools smaller again, whether it's by building new schools, breaking up existing schools, or renovating and reopening old schools.

Second, we need to strengthen high school coursework. For students who enroll in college, the rigor of their high school classes is the number-one indicator of their success in college – more important than family income, race, test scores, or grades.

That's why states that take federal dollars for higher education must put every child on the track to complete college-prep classes. Parents will be able to choose otherwise – but every child will start with the expectation that they will master the basics necessary to succeed in college.

Moreover, all students, even students in small, isolated, and high-poverty schools, should have access to challenging courses, including the college-level Advanced Placement courses. We should do more to help states make AP courses universally available, using distance-learning technology if necessary.

Third, too many low-income and disadvantaged students lack role models and guidance navigating our diverse and complicated system of higher education. Because universities have the greatest stake in getting a large, diverse applicant pool, the GEAR UP initiative asks them to work with high-poverty middle schools and help entire grades of students succeed in school and go on to college. Doubling GEAR UP and expanding the equally critical TRIO programs will give more than a million students in high-poverty schools a real shot at a brighter future.

Finally, schools should reinforce parents' work teaching good values like responsibility and commitment to community. My wife Elizabeth and I helped start a computer center for high school kids in Raleigh, North Carolina. It gives hundreds of young people who never had access to computers a chance to explore a whole new world of information. And it's staffed by other high school students who are volunteer tutors.

In North Carolina, we already have a few high schools that require every student to fulfill a community service requirement for graduation, and I think that's something we should do across America. Let's help every state do it so we can say to the young people of this country: You make America stronger, you make your life richer, and you make your own future brighter when you give back to your community.

All these efforts will help to improve the quality of high school education. But preparing young people for college won't make a difference if they can't afford to go. Student aid has steadily eroded over the past two decades. Students and their families are paying an ever-higher share of college costs and student loan debts are skyrocketing. States are trying to help, but in these hard times they're falling behind.

Research shows that because tuitions are so high and students are expected to take on so much debt to pay for college, many kids who ought to go and want to go don't even try, because they believe they can't afford it.

So today I am offering a simple proposal that I call College for Everyone. We are going to provide states with the resources to offer a new deal to students: If you are willing to take responsibility for your education, the first year of tuition at every community college and public university in your state is free.

Providing a free year of college tuition will eliminate the sticker shock that scares off so many kids. It will simplify a financial aid process now so complex that getting a student loan can be tougher than getting a small business loan. After students get through that first year, which is the toughest, they'll know financial aid is available, they'll know student loans are an investment worth making, and they'll have access to people who can help them pursue both. Perhaps more important, if they work hard, they'll know they can succeed in college.

But if we're going to make this deal with students, we're going to have to ask something from them in return. We'll say to students: You'll have to come to college academically prepared, and finish the college prep track in high school. You'll have to work hard in school, pass your courses, and stay out of trouble. You'll have to take responsibility for your community and your own education, by spending an average of 10 hours a week in work-study, service to your community or your school, or a part-time job. The research shows that part-time work on campus helps students perform better in college. For myself, there was no way I was going to waste my education when I was paying for it by doing things like unloading trucks and working on road crews.

We also need to make sure College for Everyone expands opportunities for students who attend private universities.

We should strengthen the foundation of student aid, the Pell Grant, whose steady erosion in value over the last two decades is a national embarrassment. And we should consolidate and simplify the messy array of education tax credits, each with its own rules, its own requirements, and its own definitions. Instead, we should have a single education credit with a single set of definitions that every family can understand and use.

Finally, we should tap the patriotism and determination of America's youth by creating four-year scholarships for students who commit to working for five years after college to address America's homeland security needs. Our country still has extraordinary safety needs that are not being met and that energetic and patriotic young people can meet better than anyone else.

Even as we work to open the doors of college to everyone, some young people are going to choose careers that don't require a college degree. In our society, teachers and doctors aren't the only people who do important work; so do mechanics and factory workers. We have to value these workers and their work and make sure they are prepared to compete and succeed in this century.

Some of the nation's fastest-growing occupations are in fields like health care, computer technology, hospitality, and public safety, where you don't need a college degree to land a good job. Today young people get training for these jobs wherever and however they can but their opportunities are limited, especially if they live in rural or low-income communities.

We need to expand these training opportunities, strengthen partnerships between high schools and community colleges, and modernize our vocational high schools so students get the training they need for the good jobs where skilled workers are in short supply today.

These investments are ambitious, but they are critical. As I said in my economic speech last week, there is nothing more important to our economic future than investing in education. At the same time, I believe we have to be able to pay for the new initiatives that we propose. In last week's speech, I outlined some ideas to ensure we can do just that, and get back on the path to fiscal discipline—cutting spending, eliminating corporate tax shelters, and putting off tax cuts for the most fortunate. Today, I want to add to the savings I've proposed with a reform in student aid that will bring the total cost of offering College for Everyone to about $3 billion per year.

Each year, taxpayers spend billions subsidizing banks to make student loans. We also guarantee the loans against default so banks cannot lose. If we scrapped the whole system and made the loans through competitive contracts, like one-third of loans are now, we could save about $2 billion each year.

Finally, as we make the price of college entry lower, we have to make the path to college entry fairer. If we are truly serious about providing a ladder to success that all Americans have the chance to climb, then we cannot wink at each other when we see special privileges for the most fortunate that serve to pull the ladder away.

More than 200 colleges today give students a leg up in the admissions process in exchange for a very early commitment to attend. Applying early is worth the equivalent of 100 extra points on the SAT, yet as a practical matter it is available only to the most motivated students who come from the most educated and fortunate families. Students can't apply early if they don't know about the program or can't afford to lock themselves into a particular school because they need to compare financial aid packages. Early decision worked great for my daughter, because my family could afford to use it. But for thousands of families who can't, early decision is fundamentally unfair.

I am proud that the University of North Carolina was one of the first colleges to eliminate binding early decision. Yale and Stanford have followed suit, and they deserve applause as well. Every college in America should follow suit

We also need to address legacy admissions. Many schools reward applicants because their parents went to the same school. Instead of valuing parents who have worked for years so their child could be the first in their family to go to college, these schools actually put that child at a competitive disadvantage based on his parents' education.

There's no question many legacy students are highly qualified and tremendous additions to their schools. They can be admitted without any preferences, and they should be. Unlike affirmative action, which I support, the legacy preference does not reward overcoming barriers based on race or adding diversity to the classroom. The legacy preference rewards students who had the most advantages to begin with. It is a birthright out of 18th century British aristocracy, not 21st century American democracy. It is wrong.

So today I want to challenge America's colleges and universities. If you have an early decision policy, end it. If you have a legacy policy, end it.

This isn't an area where government should have to act. We can help by making absolutely clear that our antitrust laws don't stand in the way of cooperation by schools to open the doors of college. But schools should live up to their ideals and America's ideals on their own.

If schools don't end these policies, then other action may well be necessary. Kids from the kinds of families I grew up with already have to fight an uphill battle to get to college. They don't need additional barriers that stand in the way.

You know, the fiftieth anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education is approaching. That anniversary should serve as a reminder to all of us—about how far we've come, and how far we still have to go. We've gotten rid of segregated schooling, and that's good. Our best public schools are the best in the world, and that's good. But the state of too many of our schools remains the shame of our nation. In fact if not in law, we still have two school systems, still segregated – now because of wealth more than race – but still separate and unequal. Two school systems was wrong in 1954 and it is wrong in 2002.

There is no royalty in America. People who mow the lawn or change the sheets for a living deserve as much respect and as much opportunity as the most powerful people in the country. All our children deserve the same chance to make the most of their gifts, to rise as high and as far as their talents and work will take them.

That's the great promise of America.

Our job is to make sure we keep it.

I believe we will, if we are true to our ideals, and strong enough to act on them.