McCaskill discusses education at Show Me Center forum

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Politicians are not talking enough about education, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said Tuesday at Southeast Missouri State University.

The Missouri Democrat stressed the need for No Child Left Behind reform, touted the 2007 College Cost Reduction Act, acknowledged problems the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority is having, and touched on health care issues. About 50 people attended the forum held at the Show Me Center.

McCaskill is touring Missouri during the Senate's two-week spring break and is scheduled to discuss economic stimulus checks in Kansas City today.

Americans are wringing their hands over the economy, she said, and the middle class is being hit particularly hard by rising tuition costs.

She highlighted an act signed into law last fall that increased Pell Grants for college students, created grants for students to enter certain "high-need" public sectors and raised the income threshold for qualification for loans.

"Right now kids get out of college and have debt that could choke a horse," she said.

In a world where "some think success is defined by others' failure, this is an area where we have accomplished something," she said.

However, because the law reduces the profits lenders can make on federal loans and raises fees lenders must pay, some lending companies have stopped providing federal loans. The College Loan Corp., based in California, is one such example. And as a credit crisis puts additional stress on the market, some private loans are becoming more expensive or requiring better credit in order to borrow.

McCaskill said the student lending process needs to be more transparent and a higher education price index should be created. She pointed to trouble the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, or MOHELA, is facing, saying it is "essentially out of business."

"Interest rates are set every 30 days at auctions. They have actions for public institutions on bonds and no one shows up to bid on them," she said.

MOHELA reported an operating loss of $12.4 million for the fiscal year to date and has ended its private loan and loan consolidation programs, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this month. The loss has been attributed partly to the credit crisis.

Whether the authority being required to sell some of its assets, under a plan by Matt Blunt to fund campus construction projects, contributed to the loss has been debated.

McCaskill segued into a discussion about the No Child Left Behind Act, criticizing the act for not taking student progress into account, setting arbitrary standards, and causing teachers to feel they have to teach to the test.

"Unless there are major changes, it will not be reauthorized," she said.

Brenda Woemmel, a retired Cape Girardeau School District teacher, said social studies is being "pushed out" as districts focus their attention on tested core subjects.

"If students don't know the history of the country, they won't be able to put things in perspective," Woemmel said.

McCaskill agreed, saying, "I'm worried we're not doing enough world history." She also said she is worried about teachers who are "asked to do so much more than teach." In some areas, she said, teachers are expected to be a child's nutritionist, clothe them, teach them values, be a disciplinarian, and "somewhere down the line" teach math and reading.

IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, needs to be fully funded, McCaskill said. She said she supports "mainstreaming," or including students with disabilities in a traditional classroom.

Following McCaskill's presentation, Dr. Loretta Prater, dean of the College of Health and Human Services at Southeast, asked McCaskill about health care.

"I think you will see something on health care. ... We've got to find a way to make the marketplace better" or have the government intervene, McCaskill said. She said people don't like raising taxes, but said higher insurance rates are equally crippling.

She particularly derided the current system where the uninsured go to the emergency room for ailments such as strep throat or an ear infection.

"People say you can't have free health care for all. We've got it now. We're just doing it in the most expensive way possible," she said.

Although McCaskill has publicly endorsed Barack Obama for president, she did not specifically discuss the race Tuesday, saying her intention was to meet with constituents and address concerns.

lbavolek@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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