Republicans and the White House have "major" disagreements on education policy, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Saturday in the weekly Republican address, including a fresh dispute over the scope of federal involvement in education. But on student loans, he argued, the White House and the GOP actually have a lot in common.
The interest rate on federal student loans is set to double on July 1, from 3.4 to 6.8 percent, unless Congress acts to prevent it. The Republican House passed a bill that would peg student loan interest rates to the market, rather than arbitrarily setting the number, an idea Alexander called "fairer to students and fairer to taxpayers."
And although the president has said that House Republicans did not approach the issue "the right way," calling on them to go back to the drawing board, his own proposal on student loans would also peg loan rates to the marketplace, albeit with less variability over the life of the loan.
In his address, Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) committee and a former secretary of education under former President George H.W. Bush, pledged that Republicans would "work hard" to bridge their differences with the president before the end of the month.
But while "we may be in agreement on student loans, but we have a major disagreement about who should be in charge of our 100,000 public schools that educate 50 million American children," Alexander said. "To put it simply, Democrats want a national school board; Republicans favor local control."
Blasting the "congestion of mandates" from programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top that have expanded federal control over education policy by setting common standards on teacher and student performance, among other areas, Alexander noted that Democrats on the Senate HELP committee recently passed a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that "would freeze these mandates in place."
If the bill advances to the floor of the Senate, it would be the first time since the No Child Left Behind proposal in 2001 that Congress seriously debated a reauthorization of the ESEA.
The Republican alternative to the bill moved by Senate Democrats, which Alexander dubbed "Every Child Ready for College or Career", emphasizes "state and local control" in education policy, the Tennessee Republican said.
"It puts Washington out of the business of deciding whether local schools are succeeding or failing," he explained. "It rejects the federal mandates that create a national school board, and prohibits the Education Secretary from prescribing standards or accountability systems for states. It continues the requirement that states have high standards and quality tests, but doesn't prescribe those standards."
The Republicans' proposal, according to Alexander, would also enhance school choice by encouraging the "expansion and replication of successful charter schools" and by providing low-income parents more latitude in deciding on the right public school for their children.
During an appearance before the HELP committee in February, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan paid heed to Republicans' concerns, saying the "one-size-fits-all" approach of No Child Left Behind could be a hindrance to improving student outcomes, and that states have been creative leaders in developing alternatives to the law's standards. The administration has been issuing waivers to No Child Left Behind, provided states can demonstrate the capacity to improve learning in the absence of federal mandates.
In his own weekly address on Saturday, President Obama paid tribute to America's dads in advance of Father's day.
"There will never be a substitute for the love and support and, most importantly, the presence of a parent in a child's life," he said, "and in many ways, that's uniquely true for fathers."
"I never really knew my own father," he recalled. "I was raised by a single mom and two wonderful grandparents who made incredible sacrifices for me. And there are single parents all across the country who do a heroic job raising terrific kids. But I still wish I had a dad who was not only around, but involved."
"That's why I try every day to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me," he added.
And it's that job, the president said, that will matter far more to him in the long run than any successes secured in the political arena.
"When I look back on my life, I won't be thinking about any particular legislation I passed or policy I promoted," he said. "I'll be thinking about Michelle, and the journey we've been on together. I'll be thinking about Sasha's dance recitals and Malia's tennis matches - about the conversations we've had and the quiet moments we've shared. I'll be thinking about whether I did right by them, and whether they knew, every day, just how much they were loved.