Setting forth an ambitious reform of U.S. system

As he rightly noted, academic success moves our entire society forward by ensuring that America’s workforce can meet current and future challenges. In order to achieve academic success as a nation, quality affordable education must be available to all our students, which is why I joined my colleagues to introduce H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009. From early-childhood programs to college affordability, this landmark piece of legislation makes critical improvements to all levels of our educational system.

Throughout my career, one of my highest priorities has been educating our youngest children. As a former teacher, I believe the best way to prepare our youth for success in their academic and professional lives is to provide every child with quality early education. Unfortunately, many of our children are falling behind. Nearly 12 million children under age 5 regularly spend time in childcare arrangements. However, the quality of these programs varies, and as a result, many children do not receive the kind of support they need to thrive. This problem is particularly pronounced in low-income children, who by age 4 are an average of 18 months behind their peers.

To address this issue, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act provides $10 billion over 10 years to improve education for children 5 and under. It also reforms quality standards to ensure that all children have a solid educational foundation that prepares them to enter kindergarten.

While this foundation is crucial, every stage of a child’s education is important for their development. I have always believed that a safe and healthy learning environment is critical for student success. Currently, many of our nation’s schools are in disrepair, creating an unsafe and unhealthy classroom environment that makes it more difficult to teach and to learn. This legislation provides $5 billion for school modernization projects that will create healthier, safer and more energy-efficient learning environments for all school children. Not only will this benefit our students and teachers, but it will create good jobs in our communities while helping to clean up the environment.

In today’s global economy, a college degree is becoming increasingly important to remain competitive. Earlier this year, President Obama set a goal that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” To achieve this, we must make college more affordable and accessible, so that every student who wishes to can earn their diploma.

Community colleges provide excellent educational opportunities for our students to achieve higher education. The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act bolsters our community college system by establishing a competitive grant program and providing $1 billion to renovate and improve facilities. This will allow community colleges to expand and improve upon their quality services, including important worker retraining programs.

Particularly in auto-producing areas that have been hard hit by the economic downturn, retraining programs are critically needed. My home state of Michigan suffers from the highest unemployment rate in the nation, reaching 15.6 percent. My hometown of Flint has reached a staggering 28.9 percent unemployment. Worker retraining programs provide our workers with the necessary skills to gain new employment, helping to turn our economy around by retooling our auto facilities and building the next generation of advanced vehicles.

This legislation also expands support for early college and dual enrollment programs, another of my main priorities. These programs enable students to earn up to two years of college credits while still in high school at no cost to their families. This past March, I joined with Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) to introduce the Fast Track to College Act, which establishes new early college high schools and other dual enrollment programs. It also provides support to existing programs that already are achieving results. These two pieces of legislation will expand and improve these programs, helping make college more affordable and accessible for students and easing the transition to higher education.

The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act also includes landmark investments in affordability for all college students. Starting in 2010, all federal student lending will be converted to the Direct Loan program. This change will generate $87 billion in savings over the next 10 years that will be used to boost Pell Grant scholarships, keep interest rates on federal loans affordable and create a more reliable and effective financial aid system for families.

This legislation also simplifies the FAFSA form, used to apply for financial aid.

The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act sets forth an ambitious reform of our educational system, but it is critical for the success of our nation. I have always believed that education and economic opportunity go hand in hand, and by encouraging students to pursue education and making it more affordable for them to do so, we are not only benefiting these students, we are investing in the future economic success of our nation. I am proud to have helped introduce this legislation, and I will work to ensure that it is passed into law for the benefits of America’s students.

Kildee is chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.