The notion that education should be available to all is a classically American ideal — one that George Washington espoused in his famous farewell address.
Our Founding Fathers recognized education not just as an avenue to vocations for our citizens but also as a practical investment in ensuring the strength and longevity of the newly formed government and its guarantee of liberty.
As Thomas Jefferson once put it in speaking to James Madison, “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”
The American system of public education as we know it today is, without a doubt, one of our Nation’s greatest assets and wisest investments. And we all have a stake in ensuring that the promise of an education available to all is kept and perpetuated.
That means not just supporting K-12 programs, and early childhood care and education, as critically important as they are, but also ensuring that the path to a higher education is open and available to America’s working families.
For that reason, I am a strong supporter of the Pell Grant program. Originally, appropriately known as “Basic Educational Opportunity Grants,” and later renamed for their greatest champion in the U.S. Senate, the late-Senator Claiborne Pell, these stipends have helped to open the door to college for generations of students with limited means.
As grants, these funds do not have to be repaid, like loans, easing some of the burden on students who, today, often have to cobble together monies from multiple sources to pay tuition bills. I firmly believe that more could and should be done to reach greater numbers of students, which is why I have supported expanding the eligibility for and increasing the amount of these grants.
I am also a proud cosponsor of legislation to reduce the interest rates on Federal student loans, so that borrowing is more affordable and does not overwhelm young students with burdensome with costly debt as they enter the workforce.
Likewise, I have supported legislation to expand and extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit — a $2,500 per year tax credit for working families and students attending college that would pay for costs such as tuition, books, and supplies and equipment.
The cost of a college education is growing substantially, which is why I have advocated legislation to ensure transparency and awareness in the Federal student loan process, supporting bills such as the Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act, so that students are informed about how to manage the costs of college.
In addition, I have voted for and supported legislation to establish competency-based education demonstration projects, where students can progress and receive degrees and certifications based on what they have learned rather than through credit hours or time spent in class.
And, of course, I continue to support expansions of GI Benefits for returning soldiers, so that our veterans have access to the education and training necessary to transition to a civilian life and career
Socrates said, “Education is the kindling of the flame, not the filling of the vessel.” His admonition to us is that true educational opportunity affords the student the ability to broaden his horizons, to expand her experiences in the world.
Instilling our young people with that kind of spark, that kind of intellectual curiosity has spurred American invention. It has allowed our Nation to prosper and to walk at the leading edge of the worldwide race to innovate.
And publically available education has, as our Founding Fathers knew it would, sustained our constitutional form of government, with its checks and balances hinged, in great measure, on the ability of the governed to question their leaders and challenge the powerful.
We must commit to sustaining our American system of public education. Educational opportunity for all – not just for the privileged – is essential to ensuring the perpetuation of our proud American way of life.
(Editor’s note: U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) represents West Virginia’s Third Congressional District. For more information, contact Diane Luensmann at 1-202-225-3452, or visit http://rahall.house.gov)