Senator Lamar Alexander on the Response to the Coronavirus

“Washington usually messes it up if they get involved, the way they did with Common Core.”
Photo of Sen. Lamar Alexander
Sen. Lamar Alexander

Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), has been at the center of Capitol Hill conversations about the coronavirus as it relates to health and education. Alexander previously served as Tennessee’s 45th governor, and U.S. secretary of education for President George H.W. Bush. I recently had the chance to ask Sen. Alexander about the coronavirus and how he’s thinking about the congressional role in education right now. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick: What are the most important things that Congress can do to help schools and colleges that are not fiscal?

Sen. Alexander: The best thing we can do for colleges and schools is help them reopen normally in the fall. We’ll need tens of millions of diagnostic tests to help parents feel it is safe to send their child back to school or for students to go back to college. The most recent coronavirus legislation provided up to $1 billion for a competitive shark tank to help accelerate some of the two-dozen early- stage testing concepts already underway at the National Institutes of Health.  We need a new technology to produce tens of millions of tests for when we have 50 million children going back to school and 20 million students going back to college.

Congress is also providing flexibility from education laws or regulations.  For example, Congress recognized the difficulty states were going to have meeting state testing requirements for K-12 this spring and gave the secretary the authority to waive those requirements.  In addition, there were waivers of Higher Education Act provisions for our colleges and universities in campus-based aid programs and for students enrolled in foreign institutions.

Rick: When it comes to fiscal aid, what’s the right way forward? What would you like to see Congress do in future coronavirus-aid legislation?

Alexander: We have already provided more than $3 trillion in bills related to the coronavirus and we need to see how well it’s working. We also need to be careful not to create funds that our schools or colleges become dependent on. So far, Congress has been careful to focus on broad authority, not funding specific solutions from Washington. This allows schools and colleges to decide what their needs related to the pandemic are and use the money for them.

Rick: A number of education interest groups have floated a proposal calling for at least another $175 billion in federal education aid to bolster state budgets. Do you have any initial reactions to that?

Alexander: We need to look at the enormous amount of money we’ve already spent and see what is or isn’t working and hear from governors about their state budgets. That said, another $175 billion doesn’t seem realistic or likely.

Rick: You were U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. What do you think the U.S. Department of Education has done especially well? What else could they do that might be useful?

Alexander: We are in an unprecedented situation with this pandemic, and I think they’ve been able to get out a lot of information and guidance to our schools and colleges quickly and they’ve distributed funds from the bills Congress passed very quickly.

Rick: You’re a former governor. Wearing that hat, what do you think Washington can do to be helpful to states? What would you like to see states doing?

Alexander: I know that a one-hour flight to Washington doesn’t make you any smarter and I don’t think we need to come up with a bunch of big ideas up here and send them back to states to implement—especially in education. States working with other states usually come up with the best ideas—and Washington usually messes it up if they get involved, the way they did with Common Core.

Rick: What do you think are the most important or significant fiscal challenges that states and communities face when it comes to education? Realistically, how much of the anticipated budget shortfall do you think Washington can or should make up for?

Alexander: Our economy has basically been shut down, so states are going to have to make tough budget decisions—especially where communities were hit hard by the virus and can’t reopen as quickly. But the country certainly can’t afford for Washington to keep passing trillion-dollar spending bills—we are all going to have to make tough decisions.

Rick: Are there any particular lessons from past crises, like the Great Recession or 9/11, that are useful to bear in mind as we think about the federal response?

Alexander: New York City and the country recovered much more rapidly than most people expected after 9/11.  The lesson there is that Congress needs to do this year whatever we need to do to be better prepared for the next virus.  We’ve had scares before and taken steps afterwards to be better prepared but soon lost our focus.  Even for an event as massive as what we are now experiencing, our collective memory is short.  So to be better prepared with tests, treatments, vaccines, protective equipment, extra hospital beds, and health-care personnel for the next virus—which is surely coming—we had better make those decisions before the end of the year.

Rick: You’ve been a champion of civic education and political civility for decades. I’m curious, how are you thinking about the role these things play when America faces a challenges like this one?

Alexander: America isn’t a race or a region or a background, it’s a belief in shared principles, such as liberty, equal opportunity, and the rule of law. Those principles are always most evident and important in a crisis. Educators have a real teachable moment when they get students back in their classrooms this fall. These millions of students have just witnessed history, and they need context.

Rick: What do you think the role of schools and higher education is in a time like this?

Alexander:  Our educators should give students context, and I think can give students and families a sense of stability—even at a distance.

As the whole world looks for breakthroughs in testing, treatments, and vaccines, much of the most important research is happening at our colleges and universities. It’s a reminder again of how critical it is for our country to have the greatest system of higher education in the world.

Rick: Can you give us a sense of how things are working on Capitol Hill with the CARES Act and next big spending bill?

Alexander: I know I’ve been on the phone morning to night and getting a lot done. I’m sure we all want to see how the enormous amount of money we’ve spent so far is working before we start preparing to spend more.

Rick: OK, last question. Amid everything that is going on, what have you seen or heard that is most heartening?

Alexander: The most heartening thing to me has been the explosion of brainpower and effort to create tests, treatments, and vaccines for the virus.  It is a reminder that the United States still has most of the best research universities, finest national laboratories, and the fastest computers in the world. Two weeks ago, Congress gave up to $1 billion to a “shark tank” at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create a competitive environment to find a new technology that would allow production of millions of diagnostic tests with quick results so that our country can go back to work and back to school. The NIH director, Francis Collins, once led the Human Genome Project.  His invitation for proposals attracted 400 in the first 24 hours. Hundreds more are expected. Searches for treatments and vaccines are on a similar fast-track.  The Oak Ridge National Laboratory supercomputers assisted by sorting through massive amounts of literature on coronavirus in record time. This response shows the wisdom of perhaps Washington’s best-kept secret: the decision by Congress to appropriate record levels for science and research. For example, the Appropriations Subcommittee I chair has provided five consecutive years of record funding for the Office of Science in the Department of Energy, including our programs for supercomputing. The Health Subcommittee on Appropriations has provided five consecutive years of increased funding, including record funding this year, for the National Institutes of Health.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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