A "GI Bill for Children"

Lamar Alexander

June 16, 2014

This lecture was delivered at the Ninth Annual John M. Ashbrook Memorial Dinner on Sept. 12, 1992. The subject for the 1991-92 Major Issues Lecture Series is “Striving Towards Excellence in Education.” Because, as Governor George Voinovich has said, these lectures “cover topics that are innovative and substantive within the educational field,” and because the “subject is of particular relevance considering the challenges facing our current educational system,” the Ashbrook Center is publishing the lectures under the series “Excellence in Education.” It is our hope that the wide circulation of these monographs, and the book to follow, will add to the much needed national dialogue on educational issues. Other speakers and authors in the series include: Denis P. Doyle, Pete du Pont, Chester Finn, Rita Kramer, Lynne Cheney, and Dinesh D’Souza. The opinions expressed in these publications do not necessarily reflect the views of the John M. Ashbrook Center or its Board of Advisors. The Center is grateful to the John M. Olin Foundation for its generous support of the series.

F. Clifton White
Ashbrook Center


A “GI Bill for Children”

by Lamar Alexander

Thank you for the honor of taking part in such a distinguished series of lectures. I am honored first because these are John Ashbrook’s lectures. John was an extraordinary and principled man who never did anything halfway.

I’m honored secondly because it was F. Clifton White himself who invited me. To be precise, Clif told me to come, so, of course, I did. I am one of the thousands of persons across this county who have learned to do what Clif White tells us to do.

When I set out on my first political venture in 1974 Clif helped me. He was already a national hero—the engineer of the Goldwater movement; I was a 33 year-old rookie running for governor of Tennessee. Unfortunately, it was the Watergate year. For a Republican, my timing was just about as good as Caesar’s on the Ides of March. But, with Clif’s help at least I won the Republican primary. Wherever we would go, Republicans would come out to see F. Clifton White—and thankfully a majority of them remembered to vote for me.

Clif and I have remained good friends. I’ve admired his devotion to good government, to education and to young people. He has young disciples around the world now, learning about government and politics—and while I’m not so young anymore, Clif, count me as one of those disciples.

All parents want what is best for their children, especially the best education. That is why so many people paid attention when The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recently reported that 28 per cent of parents said they would like to send their child to “some other school public or private, inside or outside of their district.”*

This is truly astonishing: 28 per cent—parents of at least 12 million American families—would like to send their child to some other school. Nine per cent said some other public school; 19 per cent said some other private school; 2 per cent said “don’t know.”

I want to talk tonight about President Bush’s proposal to help those 12 million families have the opportunity to find that “other school”. We call the proposal a “GI Bill for Children”. It would give $1,000 annual scholarships in new federal dollars to each child of a middle- and low-income family in a participating state or locality. Families could spend the scholarships at any lawfully operated school—public, private, or religious. Up to $500 of each scholarship could be spent on “other academic programs,” for example, a Saturday program to learn more math, or an afternoon program for children with speech disabilities, or a summer accelerated course in language or the arts.

Let me emphasize here what most people usually miss: these are thousand dollar scholarships that may be spent at any school. That means most of the dollars—I would expect more than 75 per cent—would go to public schools.

The President’s proposal is a demonstration program, but it is the largest new program in the fiscal year 1993 federal budget. It calls for a half billion new federal dollars, enough to provide a scholarship for all eligible children (about 60 per cent) in 24 cities the size of San Jose, or 30 the size of Little Rock or 7 the size of Milwaukee.

I predict the GI Bill for Children, when enacted, will become much more than a demonstration. During the 1990’s, it will become the principal way the federal government helps to change and fund local schools. Giving middle- and low-income families new consumer power—dollars to spend at the schools of their choice—will give families the muscle to change the schools and give the schools new dollars to help pay for those changes.

States—discouraged by massive resistance to piece-meal school change—will enact legislation chartering thousands of “break-the-mold” schools and academic programs. Then they will create state-funded “GI Bills for Children” that give parents dollars to choose among these and other schools and academic programs.

Such an approach will unite all those who want our children to have the best schools in the world: taxpayers, who are reluctant to pour new money into a system that is not working; conservatives, who believe that parents choosing among schools will introduce competition that will make all schools better; and education advocates, who believe schools need more money, especially those schools that help children from the poorest families. Already, according to Gallup, 70 percent of Americans agree it is time to give parents such consumer power—dollars to spend at the schools of their choice.

This solution to the dilemma of parents who want a different school for their child seems so obvious that, one would think, this should be the end of my speech. It seems fair to give middle- and low-income families more of the same choices that wealthy families already have. What is more deeply rooted in America than the notion that competition helps all competitors improve? Did not the original GI Bill for Veterans—now so expanded that about one-half of all four-year college students have a federal grant or loan—help to create the best system of colleges and universities in the world? Why not at least try the same idea to help create the best schools in the world?

Surprisingly, what should be apple pie, the American flag, and the first plank in any Party’s platform has become the most divisive issue in American education. Teachers’ union leaders are furious. They claim “choice,” which includes all schools, public and private, will destroy public education. They have thrown unprecedented resources into defeating the President’s efforts to literally re-invent our schools and give parents choices among them. “This is a dagger to our heart,” one union leader told me. When I appear before editorial boards trying to discuss the President’s entire AMERICA 2000 education program, I often find myself consuming most of the time arguing with editors who have plenty of choices of schools for their own children, yet who worry about giving those same choices to parents with less money. Privately, educators and others tell me they fear that school choice will hurt education, rather than help.

Perhaps most incongruous of all is the Carnegie report I mentioned earlier, the one that found that 28 per cent of parents would like to send their children to “some other school”. The report concludes that, although 28 per cent of consumer parents are dissatisfied, this somehow represents a mandate to keep things the way they are. This is, if 70 per cent say everything is OK, why change? If we had sent this same Carnegie team to Europe five years ago, would its members have reported that the Berlin Wall was a good idea because only 28 per cent of East Germans wanted out?

The Berlin Wall analogy may seem harsh, but is not so far fetched, if you step back and think about it. America has stumbled into this system where one government agency in each town has been granted the franchise to create the only government schools, to operate those schools and to tell you which of its schools your child must attend—unless you have enough money to move to another school district or to choose a private school. These well-intentioned local monopolies have given us what monopolies in a rapidly changing world might be expected to give us—schools in a time warp, schools that stymie teachers and too often bore children, schools that leave 28 per cent of American parents wishing they could send their child to some other school.

Except for land condemnation, I can think of nothing more important in the life of law-abiding American citizens quite so coercive as our persistent denial of school choice to middle- and low-income families. This is certainly not the way America usually operates. What do you suppose would happen if some law said you had to drive a Ford instead of a Chevrolet? Or live in Cincinnati instead of Cleveland? Or take a job as welder instead of a fireman? Or marry this person instead of that one? Would it make you feel better if 70 per cent of your neighbors told you it was good for you to drive the Ford, or live in Cincinnati, or be the welder, or marry person X even if you chose to do something else? In some countries this has be the norm—not in ours.

Congressman Bill Gradison of Ohio, who, with Missouri Senator John Danforth, is the principal sponsor of the GI Bill for Children, sits on the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives. He has noticed that it is common federal policy to trust poor families to make many important decisions for themselves. We don’t tell holders of food stamps to spend them at only one grocery store, or limit those with Medicaid or Medicare benefits to one doctor or one hospital. Two years ago Congress gave poor parents vouchers to spend at any day care center. And no one would think of telling college students—one-half of whom have federal grants or loans—that they couldn’t use those grants and loans at Notre Dame, or Brigham Young, or Howard, or Baylor, or Yeshiva or any other of our independent or private colleges or universities. What would you think if the president of Ohio State went to Washington, D.C. and asked Congress not to increase the number of federal grants and loans because some of the students might go to Ashland?

We are talking about something every American parent understands—wanting the best for your child. Eighty years ago, my grandfather sold his Tennessee farm and moved into Maryville so my father could go to a better school—a better public school, the same school I attended.

Over thirty-five years ago, Bill Clinton’s parents drove him into Hot Springs, Arkansas, so he could go to a better school—in his case a private Catholic school.

Turn to the real estate ads in any Ohio newspaper. You’ll find something like this: “Area 2: four bedrooms. Good schools.” Ad writers know that all parents want what’s best for their children.

So how can we say to parents of 12 million children that what was good enough for my father, or for Bill Clinton, or for anyone with money is not good enough for their children?

Before going one step further, it is important to acknowledge those who may be thinking, “Lamar, you are Mr. Johnny-one-note. Choice. Choice. Choice. Even if you were right, there is more to an education than choice of schools.”

If that is what you are thinking, you are absolutely right. The President agrees with you. I agree with you. Tonight, talking primarily about the “GI Bill for Children” and choice, I feel a little like the preacher, who is on fire to preach the whole Bible, but who knows that, because he only has a half hour, he must pick one chapter. The whole Bible in my case would be AMERICA 2000, the President’s revolutionary strategy to help America reach its six National Education Goals.

I could preach about how the President helped set a new direction for American education, called the Governors together in an historic summit in 1989, and established ambitious education goals, the first in our country’s history.

Or, I could spend the entire evening talking about how education begins at home, with families who check homework, turn off the TV, love and read to their children, and instill values.

Or, there is a mighty lesson in AMERICA 2000 itself, a unique partnership of the President and the Governors to move community by community toward the education goals. Just last week, more than 2500 communities were a part of the largest TV Satellite town meeting in our country, meeting at the same time from Anchorage to Miami, working on those goals. We believe in the African proverb: “It takes an entire village to educate one child.”

I could preach a chapter on federal funding: how the President has doubled Head Start to reach more four-year-olds; about record levels of spending for college grants and loans; $2.1 billion redirected toward math, science and technology education at all levels; federal funding for education under President Bush rising faster than state funding.

I could preach a chapter on the revolution to help thousands of communities start from scratch to create “break the mold” schools, the nearly 700 design teams that the New American Schools Development Corporation has inspired to help those communities, the $200 million business is raising to fund the design teams.

Perhaps the most important chapter is on world-class standards—the national standards in at least 7 core subjects that will be ready by 1994-95.

I could talk about the President’s efforts to get government off the teacher’s backs, giving them flexibility in their use of federal and state education dollars.

There is no silver bullet and no quick fix in education. But if we are successful in literally re-inventing thousands of very different schools and academic programs with high standards, and giving these schools autonomy, we certainly won’t assign children to these schools will we? These schools willattract children. Parents will choose the schools, and by their choices help to keep standards high, to provide additional funds, and to help make those schools the best in the world.

And if the American dream means making as many of these choices as possible available to all children, then a “GI Bill for Children” seems inevitable—otherwise only parents with money will have a wide range of choices of these new schools and academic programs.

Here is how the “GI Bill for Children” would work. Let’s say that Maria, age 30, likes her job at the hospital. But she is worried about her son David, age 11. The school board has assigned David to P.S. 23. Some children there have weapons. The teacher has decided David can’t learn. The school closes at 3 p.m., although Maria, a single parent, works until 6 p.m.

Under the President’s plan, since Maria makes less than $46,000 a year (the median income in her state), David would receive a $1,000 scholarship each year. Maria could use that scholarship at any lawfully operated school or other academic program that she thinks best meets David’s needs.

Let’s say the city where Maria lives is about the size of Akron, where 39,700 children attend elementary and secondary schools, 24,300 of whom are from middle- and low-income families. Maria’s city could therefore obtain $24 million from the Federal government—enough money to give each child the $1,000 scholarship. In order to receive the money the city would have to agree, first, to take significant steps to open its public schools to David and other children and, second, to let Maria spend David’s $1,000 scholarship at any lawfully operating school—public, private or religious that wishes to participate.

In Maria’s home town, the GI Bill for Children could create at least five new school choices for David—plus create new choices of public schools for all children.

New Choice Number One: A different public school. Maria’s co-workers have told her about public schools in a district where children feel safe and where an accelerated learning program created by Stanford Professor Henry Levin helps at-risk children learn to high standards. These schools stay open until 7 p.m. With the $1,000 scholarship, Maria could pay for David’s 30-minute bus ride to the new school. The rest of the money would follow David to that school. Maria would pick up David when she leaves her job at 6 p.m. The drive home would provide 30 minutes of opportunity for conversation, something not always easy with an 11 year old.

New Choice Number Two: St. Mary’s, the Catholic School one block away. Most of the kids at St. Mary’s are David’s neighborhood friends; most are from low-income families; only a few are Catholic. The Tuition is $750 a year.

New Choice Number Three: The same public school, P.S. 23, greatly changed. The district superintendent asks Maria and her neighbors: “What will it take to keep David and the others and their $1,000 scholarships in our neighborhood? Why drive across town? With our $5,500 per student in public funds (the national average)—plus your $1,000 scholarships—we should be able to have a much better school than the Catholic school or the public accelerated learning school across town.” The superintendent and the parents talk about guns in schools, about teachers who don’t believe all children can learn, about the lack of arts and music, about why the school and the playground are locked in the afternoons, on Saturday and in the summer. The superintendent promises change.

New Choice Number Four: A new school at the hospital where Maria works. The hospital announces it will create on-site from scratch “one of the best schools in the world” for its employees and their families. It will be very different: child care for baby, sixth grade for David, language and math for Maria, open every day, all year from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. This is good business, it attracts and keeps good employees, and it reduces absenteeism when kids are sick. To operate this “break-the-mold school”, the hospital forms a partnership with the public school district, a private school management company, and a design team from the non-profit New American Schools Development Corporation. The hospital will contribute the site and the start-up costs, the public school system will permit its $5,500 to follow each child to the site, and the employees’ children will contribute their $1000 G.I. Bill scholarships. The hospital will apply for planning money that the President has asked Congress to appropriate for jump starting the first 500 such New American Schools.

New Choice Number Five: Other academic programs. This is new and exciting. Maria can spend up to $500 of her scholarship to pay for special academic programs that help David wit his speech problem. This way, David can attend the after-school programs at the Catholic school, even though he (and his remaining $500) stay at P.S. 23 for the regular school day.

The opponents of the “GI Bill for Children” seem determined to dredge up every possible scare tactic to discredit it. Let me mention a few of these.

  • “Not enough money,” they say. But this is half-a-billion dollars, for 500,000 children, the largest new program in the federal budget for FY ’93. It is a much bigger beginning than, for example, the first Head Start program in 1965.
  • “What can $1000 buy?” A trip across town to a better public school, an after-school academic program, a private school education. (The average tuition at a Catholic elementary school is about $1000, and over half of all private school students are enrolled in Catholic schools.)
  • “Hurts public schools.” But all this money can go to public schools—if they can attract the students. The mayor of Milwaukee recently told the president, “The GI Bill for Children will hurt public schools in the same way the original GI bill hurt public universities: it will help to make them the best in the world.”
  • “Helps the rich,” they say. Wrong. This money goes only to those children who live in middle- and low-income families.
  • “Violates the separation of church and state,” some say. Wrong again. This is aid to families; not aid to schools. No one told the G.I.s at the end of World War II they couldn’t go to Holy Cross, or SMU, or Brigham Young, or Yeshiva, or Howard. Many GIs, in fact, used the original GI Bill to get their high school diplomas from Catholic schools.
  • “Poor families can’t make good decisions.” This is most often said by rich people with lots of choices. President Bush says, “Trust the parents, instead of the government.”
  • “What about discrimination?” G.I. Bill money can only follow children to lawfully operated programs; there are anti-discrimination provisions relating to race, disability and gender.

Considering all this, will the school board of say, Akron, or Maria’s hometown—which now receives about 8.5 million dollars in Federal education grants—still reject 24 million in new Federal dollars for its children who need the most help just because non-government schools might attract some of the children?

Just the other day someone gave me an article from the August, 1968, issue of Psychology Today entitled, “A Proposal for a Poor Children’s Bill of Rights.” The proposal was to give a federal coupon to perhaps up to 50 per cent of American children through their parents to be spent at any school. “Buy doing so,” the authors write, “we might both create significant competition among schools serving the poor (and thus improve the school) and meet in an equitable way the extra costs of teaching the children of the poor.” The authors were Theodore Sizer and Phillip Whitten. Ted Sizer, of course, is today one of America’s most respected and pioneering educators, Dean of the College of Education at Brown University, leader of the coalition of Essential Schools.

1968 was a long time ago. Lyndon Johnson was President. “Power to the people” was the battle cry. Sizer and Whitten went back much earlier than that:

“The idea of such tuition grants is not new. For almost two centuries variant proposals for the idea have come from such figures as Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and more recently from Milton Friedman. Its appeal bridges ideological differences. Yet it had never been tried, quite possibly because the need for it has never been so demonstrably critical as now.”

The authors quoted Mario Fantini of the Ford Foundation, who spoke of a ” ‘…parents’ lobby with unprecedented motivation…[with] a tangible grasp on the destiny of their children.’ The ability to control their own destinies definitely will instill in poor people a necessary pride and dignity of which they have been cheated.”

And what about the argument that this scheme might destroy the public schools? Sizer and Whitten said:

“Those who would argue that our proposal would destroy the public schools raise a false issue. A system of public schools which destroys rather than develops positive human potential now exists. It is not in the public interest. And a system which blames its society while it quietly acquiesces in, and inadvertently perpetuates, the very injustices it blames for its inefficiency is not in the public interest. If a system cannot fulfill its responsibilities, it does not deserve to survive. But if the public schools serve, they will prosper.”

Since 1987, we have watched in amazement how rapidly the rest of the world is seeking to emulate the American way of life. Everywhere in the world, freedom, choice, and opportunity have become the principles upon which are built the answers to the most basic human questions. Around the world, nothing is quite so much in disfavor as government monopolies of important services.

Even in Poland, the government is now giving families more choices of all schools, including private schools, as a way of extending opportunity and improving their system of education. Yet, remarkably in America school monopolies still close doors to poor children. Would it not be ironic if America were the last to try our own ideas?

It is time for local school boards to think of themselves differently, as overseer of a system that offers families the widest possible range of choices of the best schools, in somewhat the same way that an airline looks at its responsibility to offer travelers a wide range of opportunities. The airline does not insist upon inventing or designing or building its airplanes. It does not insist on owning them. It does not even insist upon making reservations. The airline conceives its job as making sure that every traveler who wants to fly has a widest range of attractive choices at a reasonable cost and its passengers can get from A to B safely and on time.

We should think of a system of public education in much the same way. The managers of that system should think of themselves as in charge of making sure that every single child has the broadest possible number of options at a reasonable cost to enroll in the best schools and academic programs, to help each child do that safely, and to leave the school having learned what the child needs to know to live, work and compete in the world.

Already many school boards are thinking in this way. Dade County (Miami) is putting more elementary schools in hospitals, creating as many as 50 break-the-mold schools as it rebuilds after Hurricane Andrew. Honeywell has a high school in its corporate headquarters in St. Paul. Down the street, there is a kindergarten in a bank. Baltimore has hired a private company to help manage nine public schools. Minnesota school boards have long had “contract schools” that others design and operate. California has just authorized 100 “charter” schools designed by teachers and others, free of the usual regulations. Why not invite museums, corporations, groups of teachers, libraries, places of business to design and operate schools that are the best in the world and let those schools attract our children? Why employ our most creative people only when we want to create missiles that will find their way down smokestacks?

I have a prediction and a suggestion.

The prediction is that by the time our fifth graders, the class of 2000, are seniors, school choice will not be an issue. Much of this fury will subside as soon as educators read the President’s legislation and begin to realize—as most do not now—that all of the money can go to public schools and most of it will. This is a lot of money—for example, in the average elementary school in Akron, 360,000 new dollars every year without strings to a school of 600 students. It will be hard for a school district to turn its back on this money for the poorest Americans when its only reason for doing so is that some of these poor families might choose to change from one school to a school that is better for their children.

Watch for California to lead the way as it grapples with enormous challenges to its education system. According to Education Secretary Maureen Demarco, 200,000 new children—more than attend all the schools in Detroit—will arrive in California schools every year. 22 per cent of the children in California schools don’t speak English. Something has to give. The school structures were never designed for such challenges. Drastic changes—and more money—will be required.

California’s response this year was to enact legislation creating 100 charter schools, taking off state and union rules, and inviting teachers to create new schools that meet the needs of children. California also tried to create vouchers for its exiting schools by referendum, which did not quite secure the necessary number of valid signatures to get on the ballot. (But the referendum is slated for consideration in 1994.) What if California combined the demand for different kinds of schools, the demand for school choice, and the demand for new funds into a single movement: chartering 1000 new schools each year for the next ten years, and establishing a California GI Bill for Children creating scholarships that parents could use at any California school? The federal GI Bill for Children could then supplement California legislation by providing additional dollars for parents of middle- and low-income children.

Which leads me to my suggestion. This one is for some Ashbrook Scholar who will be writing a thesis in the year 2000, when today’s 5th graders are seniors. Make your subject parental choice of schools. By then, it will be a matter of history. Your colleagues will wonder along with you as you examine this strange era when we granted government monopolies control of the most valuable and important enterprises in town, and so many people fought furiously to keep doors to many of the best schools closed to poor children. Your colleagues will ask, how could this have ever happened in America, at a time when the ideas of freedom, choice and opportunity were sweeping the rest of the world? It will be your challenge as a scholar at the Ashbrook Center to help them understand why.

 About the Author

On January 22, 1991, President Bush nominated Lamar Alexander as U.S. Secretary of Education. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on March 14, 1991.

Immediately before taking office, Secretary Alexander was the president of The University of Tennessee, a position he had held since July 1988. He served as governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987. As chairman of the National Governors’ Association, he led the fifty-state education survey, Time for Results. In 1988 the Education Commission of the States gave him the James B. Conant Award for “distinguished national leadership in education.”

He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vanderbilt University and was a law review editor at New York University. He was born July 3, 1940. He and his wife, Honey, have four children: Drew, 21; Leslee, 19; Kathryn, 17; and Will, 12.