74 Interview: Sen. Lamar Alexander on Finally Fixing College Financial Aid Form, Being Ready to Advise Biden’s Ed Secretary Pick and $900B Relief Bill

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Getty Images)

Dec. 28 Update: After keeping the nation in limbo over the holidays, President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan COVID-19 relief package Sunday night. “I will sign the Omnibus and Covid package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed,” he said in a statement.

The president said he wanted $2,000 payments to individuals instead of $600. The House is expected to vote on a standalone bill that would increase the payments to $2,000 but it’s unclear whether Senate Republicans would even consider it. The long-awaited relief package includes about $54 billion for K-12 schools and $23 billion for colleges and universities.

See previous 74 interviews: Sen. Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms, civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks confronting Elizabeth Warren on charter schools, criminologist Nadine Connell talks about the data behind school shootings, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration and more. The full archive is right here.

With Congress poised to approve a $2.4 trillion federal funding package — that includes $900 billion in pandemic relief — retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander stepped away for a few minutes Monday to celebrate his long-awaited victory in streamlining the federal application for financial aid.

Unless Congress needs to override a veto from President Donald Trump on the spending bill, Alexander’s vote on the package could be his final act after 18 years in Congress.

The senior senator from Tennessee, who turned 80 in July, also weighed in on the proposed relief bill, which includes $82 billion in funding for K-12 schools and higher education, and what he thinks should be top priorities for the next education secretary. While he didn’t want to speculate on whether President-elect Joe Biden might choose Connecticut State Superintendent Miguel Cardona for that post — or any other candidate under consideration — the former education secretary under George H. W. Bush said he stands ready to offer advice. Whoever it is, he said, should focus on getting the youngest students back in school.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Can you talk about the revisions to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in the spending bill Congress is currently considering? Does this accomplish all that you wanted before your retirement? 

It shows the value, which isn’t always immediately apparent, of working six years until you get a broad agreement and get every detail right. This affects 20 million families every year who fill out this complex, 108-question form. Former Gov. Bill Haslam says this is the single greatest impediment to students taking advantage of the free two years of college that Tennessee offers because they are discouraged and intimidated by the form.

Someone would say, “Why didn’t you do it six years ago when you started?” The truth is, when Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and I first started, we would have boiled down the 108 questions to two. As we worked on it and worked with the states, we discovered that that would have been counterproductive because it would have taken away information the states used to make their own student aid programs. We’ve ended up with a proposal, I believe, that everyone agrees is correct. It will reduce the questions from 108 to no more than 33. It will greatly simplify the federal aid application process for students and should encourage millions more low-income Americans to take advantage of the grants and loans that the federal government offers for college.

I wish we could have done it in three years but the fact that we did it in six years means we got a better result and we have broad agreement on it. It’s the kind of thing the United States Senate was invented to do — to take a difficult problem, work on it for a long time and to get such a broad agreement that everybody can be for it.

Who would be your pick for the next education secretary? What qualities would you like to see in who President-elect Biden chooses for that post? 

That’s President-elect Biden’s prerogative. I’m glad to give advice and work with whomever he chooses but basically I’ve finished my job. I’ve been very fortunate to be chairman of the education committee for six years and work with Sen. Patty Murray and others interested in getting results.

I think we’ve learned a lot from the pandemic and one thing we’ve learned from education is that virtual learning has its severe limits, especially for younger children. In our state of Tennessee, the studies show tremendous learning losses for the youngest children up to the third and fourth grade who have not been in school or who have been learning virtually or who have not been properly schooled at home since March.

Younger children need personal attention and they need to be in school. We also learned in higher education that virtual learning can be useful for large lectures and for remote teaching in some cases. I think we need an education secretary who makes a priority of helping the youngest children damaged by the pandemic recover the learning they lost. It may take a long time.

The 74: What are your thoughts on this relief bill being considered today? 

I’m pleased with the result that Congress is coming to today. It would have been better if we had done it three or four months ago because there was broad agreement in the House-passed bill, and what the Senate Republicans voted for, to help schools, to help colleges, to help child care, help [the Paycheck Protection Program], to help tests, treatments and vaccines. The argument for the last three or four months had been over what we didn’t agree with, which was the state and local funding and the liability.

We should have, three months ago, done what we did today, which is to say, “Let’s pass what we agree on and punt to next year the 20 or 15 percent we don’t agree on.” That’s usually a much better way to legislate and I’m glad we finally got to that result.

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