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Straight Up Conversation: Senator Rand Paul on Federal Ed Policy

Last week, I had the chance to talk with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Tea Party favorite, about his views on education policy. Paul, a fierce critic of deficit spending and expansive government, has called for abolishing the federal Department of Education. His recent appointment to the U.S. Senate committee charged with education has boosted interest in his views on schooling. Here's what Sen. Paul had to say on ESEA/NCLB, Race to the Top, abolishing the Department of Ed, DC vouchers, the Common Core, for-profit higher ed, and related subjects.

Rick Hess: Your appointment to HELP has generated a lot of interest in the world of education. An Education Week reporter wrote, "Senator Paul's appointment, obviously, isn't curtains for 400 Maryland Ave. But the Senator is obviously going to be a tough customer who probably won't rush to sign off on the administration's ideas for ESEA renewal." What's your take on that kind of reaction?
Senator Rand Paul: It sounds fairly accurate. I object to both Republicans and Democrats who think that we should federalize education. I can't tell you how long it's been part of the Republican philosophy...that we believe in state and local control of schools. I think there's a philosophic argument for it but there's also a practical argument for it--we don't have any money.

RH: What kind of role do you see yourself playing as the Senate takes up ESEA reauthorization and the administration's school reform agenda?
RP: We'll have to see exactly what's involved. I've always been a little bit perplexed by the reaction of many to No Child Left Behind, for example, because I've yet to meet a teacher who's for it and yet the teachers unions say, "Oh yeah, it's broken, we all hate it, but let's double the funding for it so we can fix it." On the other side of the coin you have the Republicans who think it's one of their biggest achievements to have passed it. [Yet], to me, it has a basic contradiction with the Republican philosophy of local control of schools. You know, we doubled the size of the Department of Education during Republican control, doubled the amount of employees there. I just think it's a wrong way to go. [It's] this top-down approach [and it] takes a bludgeon to determine how to teach kids. It tells schools that they aren't succeeding because their overall scores are low when maybe every one of their kids is actually improving.

RH: During your campaign you mentioned you'd be interested in abolishing the Department of Education. How much of a focus, realistically, do you think that's going to be for you this year?
RP: I think where it really comes into play is that most Republicans are unwilling to take the bold step of saying that certain things shouldn't be done in Washington, they should be done in the states. They might say that in general but they aren't willing to cut [even] a department that is a relatively new department--[one] that Reagan opposed, [George H.W.] Bush opposed, Dole opposed. For 16 years it was part of our official platform to be against the Department of Education. But you [also] have to do that for practical purposes, not just for philosophical purposes. There's not enough non-military discretionary spending to balance the budget, even if you eliminate all of it. You have to be for restructuring government, downsizing government... You have to really go after it that way or we don't have any chance of balancing the budget.

RH: If it proves impossible to abolish the Department or eliminate the federal role in K-12 education entirely, are there particular reforms or changes you'd like to see?
RP: I've talked with superintendents in my state, principals,...[and] school boards and they all have particular fixes. And I told them that, first of all, I will try to get No Child Left Behind repealed in its totality. I won't always get everything I want up here, I realize that, but I still will try. And I will probably support most of the things that they are asking for as long as they're not asking for more money to be spent. [I'm skeptical of some of the proposals] like judging the schools based on the progress of each individual student. Statistically, if you have 20 kids in a class that's not a good sample size. If you have 200 kids in a school, that's still not a good sample size. Four National Merit Scholars could skew a sample like that. And that's the kind of thinking that we have in Washington, where they put schools on probation, where [when measuring performance] they make them include certain kids who have learning disabilities. All of that skews results and really doesn't get to the truth of whether it's a good school or not. There are schools that have waiting lists to get into because they are so popular and are universally acclaimed by the community and yet they sometimes score low.

RH: As you know, Race to the Top was the administration's much-discussed, competitive K-12 grant program under the stimulus bill. Would you be inclined to support or oppose administration calls to extend the program?
RP: Competition among schools and charter schools and magnet schools I'm for. School choice--all of those things I'm for. I'd rather see them administered in the states and localities... If a program is particularly good, and everybody says, "Oh, Race to the Top is the way to go," I'd rather have it done at the state level. But also, if [the administration] wants new money for anything, they need to take it from somewhere else. We've an annual deficit of nearly $2 trillion, and we just can't keep adding programs.

RH: One of the things that the administration encouraged in Race to the Top was that states adopt the state-developed Common Core standards in reading and math. What's your view of the Common Core?
RP: As far as exactly what is taught, I think that there could even be good ideas that come out of federal government on occasion, surprising as that might be, but I think that those decisions should still be made locally. I think a good example of how best to teach is so different from community to community. If you remember [Jaime Escalante] in East L.A., he [had great success] teaching mathematics, but his techniques were probably different than if your kids go to Beverly Hills. We have different problems in Louisville that we might not have in northern Kentucky. And one size fits all is not the way to do it...Communities differ throughout Kentucky but definitely kids in Bowling Green are different from kids in Brooklyn or Queens.

RH: So you think it makes sense to have different academic standards across the states?
RP: Yeah, and that variability should be no federal standards and all state standards. I don't think there's any reason to have it in Washington. The problem with this debate is that certain people on the other side of the debate characterize it as, if you are opposed to the Department of Education, then you are opposed to education.

RH: You've spoken frequently about the need to cut spending. As states and school districts wrestle with their own shortfalls, do you see any role for Washington in providing support or encouraging them to make cuts?
RP: The problems [for states and districts] are unfunded mandates--they're told something to do and then not given any money to do it. Some of them say, "Well, just give us the money and we'll do the mandate." I say, "Let's just get rid of the mandates." Boone County is up near Cincinnati and their budget is like $150 to $200 million a year, and I was told that twenty or thirty percent of that went to kids with special needs. And I said, "Do you have twenty to thirty percent special needs kids?" And the answer's no, but they're told they have to do that. You always wonder why your kid comes home from school and they say, "Mom, we need to raise money for pencils and computers and pens and paper." You wonder, "With $200 million, why don't we have that?" It's because the [federal government] is dictating to them and they can't decide how they spend their money. For example, if you have three children who are quadriplegic one year, it would be an enormous amount of resources to try to help those kids. And I'm not opposed to that, but if you have zero the next year, I'd let you allocate your money in a different way.

RH: Have you given any thought to the GAO's investigation into for-profit colleges and the Department of Education's efforts to more aggressively regulate them?
RP: No, I can't really say that I'm informed enough to give you a comment on that.

RH: One of the factors impacting American schooling is the presence of millions of school children who are in the country illegally, especially as these children can require substantial resources. You have called for repealing birthright citizenship, so that children born in the U.S. must have one parent here legally in order to be considered "automatic citizens." In light of that, do you have any views on this question?
RP: Both education and health are really stretched by this, and there is a role for the federal government in controlling the border, but I don't think that really negates the ability of states to also have a say, particularly in the expenditure of their money. How exactly you do it I don't know, but I wouldn't prevent them at the federal level from deciding how people are enrolled, who is enrolled, and whether or not you need to be paying taxes.

RH: The courts, of course, have long ruled that schools are required to offer free, public education to school-age children regardless of citizenship status. Is that something that you think needs to be looked at?
RP: I'd leave it up to the states and I'm not sure exactly what the answer is.

RH: House Speaker Boehner has made it clear that one of his educational priorities is going to be resurrecting the Washington, DC, voucher program that Congress ended last year. Do you support that proposal?
RP: I'm a big fan of vouchers. I'm just not sure I want to spend any more money anywhere. So probably what I would do, if it came to [the Senate], is I would try to amend it to say I'm in favor of vouchers, but take it from your existing budget. The thing is, Washington, DC, I think, has the highest per pupil cost of anywhere in the country and some of the lowest performing schools. And it sounds like they had some people who really wanted to reform it--the previous mayor and [Chancellor Michelle Rhee], but there's still a titanic battle between reformers and the unions and I guess we saw who won that battle.

RH: So, just to be clear, you would support voucher legislation but you wouldn't want to see it funded out of new federal outlays?
RP: Right. I'm a big fan of vouchers and of school choice and anything we can do within public, private, or otherwise. I'm all for vouchers, I consider it to be just giving you your own money back and then you choose where you spend it--that the money really goes to the person and not the school. It's just figuring out, like anything else, how to pay for it.

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