Patty Murray

Remarks at Alliance for Excellent Education Conference - Nov. 17, 2003

Patty Murray
November 17, 2003— Washington, DC
Alliance for Excellent Education Conference
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Thank you, Secretary Riley. It’s an honor to be introduced by such a champion for our students. One of my proudest accomplishments was working with you, Mr. Secretary, to pass the Class Size Reduction Act, and I’ve got to say that we miss you here in the Capitol.

I want to thank all of you for that warm welcome. It’s always a pleasure to speak with people who are working to improve education, because education is where I got my start.

When my two children were little, they were in a great preschool program in Washington State through our community college. The program taught skills to our kids, and also offered parenting classes for parents. But one day the instructor told me that the program was being cancelled. Apparently they were canceling it because they had to make budget cuts. Well I wanted to know who "they" were and why "they" would cancel such a good program. Apparently "they" were our state legislators, so I bundled my children into the car and went off to Olympia to explain to them why they could not cut this program. The legislators in Olympia told me that I was just a "mom in tennis shoes," and there was nothing I could do to save our preschool program.

But I didn’t listen. Instead, I organized a grassroots campaign. I picked up the phone and started calling other parents. And they called more parents. We wrote letters. We held rallies, and much to their surprise, the legislature kept the funding for our preschool program in the budget! I went on to teach in that same preschool, and I’m proud to say that the program is still going strong in Washington State today, and the Legislature wouldn’t dare to touch it. Later, I ran for the local school board, served in the Washington State Senate, and then I decided to run for the United States Senate.

A lot of people told me that I could not become a United States Senator because I didn’t have the right background. They told me I didn’t have enough experience. They told me I couldn’t raise the money. They even told me I was too short. Well today, I’m proud to say that I am the 11th tallest woman in the United States Senate!

And the experts were wrong in saying I didn’t have enough experience to be a senator. The truth is that I learned everything I needed to know about the United States Senate by teaching pre-school. I learned: to treat others as you’d like to be treated, to make sure everyone has a chance to speak, and to never let the bullies win.

So whenever there’s an uphill battle, whenever people say that you can’t do anything about it, I’m always ready to roll up my sleeves, bring people together, and make it happen.

And that’s what I want to talk with you about tonight. Everyone in this room knows there is a crisis in our secondary schools. During this conference, you’re hearing from experts in the field, but I know you already know about this crisis. You see it every day in the work you do supporting public education. We all know this is a serious problem. And we also have a good sense of what the solutions are. During your time here, you’re exploring some great, researched-based ideas.

The Challenge

So if we know there’s a problem, and we know the solutions, why isn’t the federal government leading the charge to make things better? And more importantly, how can we pressure Congress and the White House to finally take action?

Tonight I want to answer that question. I want to share some things we can do together to raise the profile of this issue, and I want to update you on the bill I’ve introduced to improve America’s high schools.

I think the best way to start, is to take an honest look at what we face here in Washington, D.C. The most powerful force in Washington is not the White House or Congress. It’s not the Democrats or the Republicans. The most powerful force in Washington, D.C. is inertia. It’s the inaction that traps us in the status quo.

Let me give you just one statistic. In the last session of Congress, 9,130 bills and joint resolutions were introduced. Out of those 9,000, only 383 became law. That’s about 4 percent. So just looking at the numbers alone, we face an uphill fight in passing any legislation to help high school students.

But despite the odds, Congress does manage to get things done. This year, Congress supported a national Do Not Call registry. It restricted Internet spam. And it limited media ownership by large companies. These are all worthwhile things, but aren’t our teenagers worthwhile too?

If these things can make it to the top of the agenda, then we’ve got to find a way to put high school reform on the top of the list as well. And I think it starts, like every grassroots effort, by bringing the stakeholders together. That’s why I want to thank the Alliance for Excellent Education for uniting all of us at this conference. Tonight, in this room we have: the researchers who have helped us understand the challenges in our high schools. We have the advocates who have publicized that research and used it to develop policy proposals. We have the foundations that are advancing the field with demonstration projects, and we have the educators who are struggling with this challenge every day.

We have leaders like Secretary Riley, and my colleagues – Representatives Hinajosa and Davis. And we’ve got organizations like the Gates Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. I’ve been proud to work with almost all of you over the past 10 years. Based on what I know about all of you, we can overcome the odds and put this issue on the front burner.

And heaven knows we need to do it quickly, because every day that goes by another 2,800 students drop out of high school.

You all know the statistics. Our high school graduation rate is 70 percent. Only 51 % of African-American students and 52 % of Latino students get high school diplomas. Failing to graduate has an enormous cost to these students, their families, and our communities. Even those students who do receive a high school diploma are not guaranteed success in college or in life. Only 32 percent of students leave high school prepared to enter a four–year college. And again, the situation is worse for minority students. Only 20 percent of African American students and 16 percent of Hispanic students leave high school prepared for college.

NCLB Could Push Out Students

And we know there’s another challenge that could make things worse. Many of you are working extremely hard to implement the President’s No Child Left Behind Act. All the new testing and accountability required in No Child Left Behind creates a real risk that kids who are having trouble passing those tests will drop out -- or be pushed out -- of school. We’re already seeing the effects in school districts like Houston and New York City, where thousands of students are being "pushed out."

These students would probably graduate from high school if they had some extra time and support. But because their scores may lower the school average, they are subtly encouraged to leave school for a GED program – which most will never complete.

We all know that this is not the way most educators work, but this is a natural result of putting people in impossible situations. If we fail to address these problems, the crisis in our high schools will only get worse.


But the good news is that we know what students need to succeed. Many of you have helped us identify challenges and solutions. You’ve looked at the problem of adolescent literacy and shared with us the value of literacy coaches. You’ve looked at low graduation rates, and shared with us the importance of early and effective guidance and counseling. And you’ve looked at low academic achievement and alienation, and shared with us the value of small schools.

The PASS Act

I’ve been listening carefully to your work. I’ve taken what I’ve learned and put it into one bill called the PASS Act. That stands for Pathways for All Students to Succeed. The bill number is S. 1554. It calls for three things: literacy coaches, academic counselors, and the one ingredient that makes it all work -- resources. Let me touch on each of those.

First, my bill will ensure that reading instruction doesn’t end in the 5th grade. It creates a $1 billion “Reading to Succeed” grant program. It will put literacy coaches in our secondary schools – to help teachers give students the reading and writing support they need – including help for children with limited English proficiency and children with disabilities.

Second, my bill provides grants for high-quality Academic Counselors. These counselors will ensure each student has an individualized plan --and access to services --so that every student will graduate from high school prepared for college and a good job.

And finally, my bill provides resources to those high schools that are furthest behind. It creates a $500 million grant program that allows districts to identify, develop, and implement reforms to turn around low-performing schools and improve student achievement. For example, work by the Gates Foundation and others have shown us that smaller schools work, and now we need to bring the benefits of smaller schools to more students. So those are the three parts of my bill.

And now I want to return to the initial question I raised. With a clear crisis at hand and effective solutions at hand, why has the federal government not made a serious investment in America’s high schools?

We Need Leadership at the Top

The answer starts at the top with a President who has shown little interest in America’s high schools. When President Bush sent his initial No Child Left Behind proposal to Congress, it included not one mention of reforms or supports for America’s high schools. In fact, his testing program ended at Grade 8. This enormous oversight has been compounded by annual budget requests that systematically starve critical programs. For example, all three of his budget requests have zeroed out the Dropout Prevention and Smaller Learning Communities programs. In his first budget, President Bush zeroed out the GEAR UP program. He’s never proposed increasing funding for GEAR UP or for TRIO despite their records of success with at-risk high school students. The President’s first foray into our high schools was his 2003 budget proposal to decimate the Perkins program. In this environment, it will surely be an uphill battle to secure the change and investment our students need.

We Have the Keys

But we have a secret weapon. Parents know there’s a problem. Educators know there’s a problem. The higher ed community knows there’s a problem. Businesses know there’s a problem, and communities across the country know there’s a problem.

These are the people that politicians listen to, and they need to be heard. In the coming year Congress needs to pass a budget, pass an education appropriations bill, reauthorize the Higher Education Act, and reauthorize the Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act. Every one of these steps is an opportunity to be heard. And if need be, every one of these can be a battleground where we fight for what our high school students need.

Our Action Plan

Together, we can create the momentum for change, and I believe it starts here tonight, and this is the way to do it.

First, take a look at my bill – the PASS Act – and if you like it, please send me a letter stating your support.

Second, write a letter to your two senators and ask them to co-sponsor my bill.

Third, if you’re part of organization, get the word out to your members. Use email or newsletters to tell them about the PASS Act and urge them to contact their Senators.

Fourth, ask your Representative in the House to support the “Graduation for All Act” introduced by Congressman and Hinajosa and Congresswoman Davis.

And finally, share your support with leaders in the Administration. They need to hear from all of us.

So that’s the game plan that we can use to finally put high school success on the agenda in Congress and the White House. Together we can create the political pressure among parents, educators, students, and citizens that will force the politicians to help high school students, once and for all.

The legislative odds may be against us. The Administration may not be engaged. But we have the numbers on our side, and friends, the students that we’re fighting for deserve nothing less.