Spencer Abraham
Republican Spencer Abraham is Michigan's junior U.S. senator.

As the father of three young children, I consider improving education to be one of my top priorities in the U.S. Senate. I believe that educational power and resources should be in the hands of parents, who help their kids with homework and encourage them to succeed, and the teachers, principals, and school boards who alone can make classrooms places of learning and growth.

How do we achieve the goal of improved education for our children? We need to raise the quality of teachers by providing resources for teacher professional development, teacher testing, and merit pay. We need to ensure that every Michigan student has access to a college education by providing financial resources through tax incentives and scholarship programs.

We also need to recognize that every community is different. A small district in rural Martin, Mich., has very different needs from a large urban district in Detroit. Local school districts need to have options regarding how to spend federal education dollars. Washington is finally starting to recognize this with the adoption of the Flexibility in Education Act, known as Ed-Flex.

Ed-Flex is our attempt to free local schools from the burdens of the know-it-alls and the red tape in Washington. Ed-Flex gives every state a chance to waive the cumbersome rules, regulations, and red tape often associated with federal education programs. The state of Michigan participated in a demonstration project under Ed-Flex and, as a result of its tremendous success, the waivers are now available across the country.

This year, we went one step further and included as part of the Educational Opportunities Act a voluntary demonstration program permitting up to 15 interested states and school districts to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Secretary of Education in which the states agree to specific academic improvement performance standards for their lowest performing students in return for the ability to consolidate federal funds and eliminate federal strings to better serve their neediest students.

We also need to recognize that qualified and dedicated teachers are an essential element in our goal to improve education. Teachers play a special and indispensable role in our children's education. Nothing can replace the positive and long-lasting impact a dedicated, knowledgeable teacher has on a child's learning process. Accordingly, the Educational Opportunities Act includes the Teacher Empowerment Act (TEA), which provides states and districts with close to $2 billion to develop and implement innovative professional development and teacher quality programs. Because the states and districts have the control of these monies, each program will be specifically designed to address the needs of the individual states and communities by the people closest to the schools: the teachers, administrators, and parents.

During the debate on the Educational Opportunities Act, I introduced and passed an amendment to ensure that states and districts would be able to use their TEA funding to implement teacher testing, merit-based pay, and tenure reform programs. These programs will help schools and teachers better pinpoint areas in need of additional professional development and appropriately reward outstanding performance. I also support the establishment of teacher tax deduction to help defray the cost of professional development expenses.

To help bring quality technology to our classrooms, last year I introduced the New Millennium Classrooms Act, a bill designed to provide incentives for businesses to donate high-quality computers and related equipment to K-12 schools. Endorsed by the National Education Association, my legislation specifically targets economically disadvantaged schools, allowing poorer schools to allocate more of their scarce resources to technology training for teachers, technology curriculum development, or infrastructure needs instead of forcing them to spend all of their funding on equipment shortfalls. Just this March, my bill passed the Senate by a vote of 96-2 as an amendment to another bill.

I also believe we can do more to help families pay for college. That's why I support the Affordable Education Act, which expands Education Savings Accounts, expands qualified pre-paid tuition plans, includes tax relief for employer-provided educational assistance, and eliminates the 60-month limit on the student loan interest deduction.

Education will determine America's future. If we want better schools, then parents, teachers, and local leaders must have access to the resources and the flexibility to improve our schools, create greater opportunities for teacher professional development for teachers, and educate our children. If we want our children to prosper in the high-tech economy, then we must close the digital divide and encourage the study of math and science.

I am confident that, together, we can make America's schools the best in the world and provide our kids with the quality education they deserve.

For more information about Sen. Abraham, visit www.Abraham2000.net.