When Senator Merkley was a child, his father would drive him to the first day of school each year, point to the doors of the school, and say, “Those are the doors to opportunity. If you study hard, you can do or be just about anything.” Throughout his life, Merkley has taken those words to heart. He was the first in his family to go to college, earning scholarships to Stanford and Princeton.
When Merkley first took on the challenge of running for the Oregon State Legislature, it was because he wanted to build a better education system for his young children. As Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, Merkley worked with the 2007 Legislature to increase funding for Oregon's pre-kindergarten/Head Start Program, allowing 75 percent of eligible children to enroll, up from 50 percent at previous funding levels. Merkley also led the effort to more than double the funds available for student financial aid and make financial aid available to part-time students for the first time in Oregon’s history.
Education is a major factor in determining whether our children and our nation succeed in today’s increasingly competitive global economy. As a country, we need to do a better job of supporting teachers and giving them the resources they need to provide the best possible environment for teaching our children. If we are serious about developing a competitive and comprehensive education system, we must provide our children with a well-rounded curriculum and our teachers with the resources they need for classroom achievement.
As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Senator Merkley is working hard with his colleagues to craft an education agenda that ensures every child has the opportunity to receive a world class education.
Elementary and Secondary Education
Oregon’s schools are facing crowded classrooms, shortened calendar years, and facilities in need of maintenance and repair. We must make strong investments in our education for the success of each child and the long-term economic prosperity of our country. That is why Senator Merkley is fighting for funding to support students and educators.
Senator Merkley believes that we can improve education in America by:
• Creating a strong reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind) that establishes realistic benchmarks to measure student progress over time and gives teachers and school the flexibility and support they need to succeed.
• Fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) to ensure that every student has the opportunity of a quality education. Senator Merkley is fighting to raise the federal funding levels for IDEA to provide schools and teachers with the resources they need to help all students realize their full potential.
• Supporting robust funding for early learning programs that provide young children with a proven foundation for long-term educational success. Building on his advocacy for Head Start in the Oregon Legislature, Senator Merkley has consistently supported increased funding for Head Start, Early Head Start, and early learning programs, including $2.1 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He has requested $1 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start from Senate Appropriators.
• Providing schools with the educational facilities necessary for academic success in the twenty-first century. Senator Merkley cosponsored the School Building Fairness Act (S. 1121), which would authorize up to $6 billion to repair, renovate, and upgrade elementary and secondary public schools.
• Ensuring that out students are healthy and have access to nutritious foods in school. Senator Merkley fought hard for the passage of health care reform to provide quality, affordable health care coverage for all families. He also cosponsored legislation to improve access to healthy school meals: The Growing Farm to School Programs Act (S. 3123), a bill that would provide funding to integrate local foods into school meal services and the Expand School Meals Act (S. 1737), a bill that would expand eligibility for free school lunches to ensure that no child goes hungry at school. In addition, Senator Merkley cosponsored the Fitness Integrated with Teaching (FIT) Kids Act, (S. 634), legislation that would address the childhood obesity epidemic by improving the quality of physical education and nutrition information students receive in public school.
• Supporting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education programs to foster innovation and help American students remain competitive in the global marketplace.
As the first in his family to go to college, Senator Merkley understands both the challenge of financing college and the lifelong benefits of receiving a higher education. Over a lifetime, a person with only a high school diploma will earn on average $23,000 less per year than a college graduate. Many professions in the world’s evolving economy require more than a high-school diploma, but rising tuition costs have become a barrier for too many Americans looking to pursue higher education. Senator Merkley believes that Congress must help make college more affordable for American families.
One of the first actions Senator Merkley took when he joined the Senate was to work with President Obama and Senate leadership to increase funding for Pell Grants by more than $17 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Senator Merkley also strongly supported the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. This landmark law improves college access and affordability by eliminating wasteful spending in federal college loans and makes historic investments in financial aid for students. The law redirects over $60 billion from subsidies for banks to increasing the maximum Pell Grant, a federal scholarship that makes college more affordable for millions of Americans, to nearly $6,000 by 2017 and increase the number of recipients. The legislation also includes $2.5 billion to support the critical work of colleges serving minority students and improves the terms of student loan forgiveness plans to make student loan repayment more manageable.
Senator Merkley supports creating a broad-based college tuition tax credit. To help families pay for college, Senator Merkley has co-sponsored legislation that would expand and simplify higher education tax credits for students in four-year colleges and students in technical institutes and community colleges.
Educational Opportunities for Service Members and Their Families
Senator Merkley believes that the government must do everything it can to assist our men and women in uniform returning from Iraq and Afghanistan by providing financial assistance to help pay for job training or a college education. More information on Senator Merkley’s efforts in this area can be found at the Foreign Policy and National Security page and the Veterans page.