U.S. Senate Candidates on Education, Housing, Transportation and Economy - Metropolitan Planning Council

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U.S. Senate Candidates on Education, Housing, Transportation and Economy

U.S. Senate candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Alan Keyes, both emphasized education in their remarks to MPC’s 2004 Annual Meeting Luncheon on Oct. 7.

Education, particularly delivering on the right of every Illinois student to receive a quality education, tops the Metropolitan Planning Council’s priority list. Likewise, both of this year’s U.S. Senate candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Alan Keyes, emphasized education in their remarks to MPC’s 2004 Annual Meeting Luncheon on Oct. 7.

Less than four weeks before the Nov. 2 election, in their first joint appearance, Obama and Keyes were asked to address four specific questions about the federal government’s role in meeting Illinois ’ education, housing, transportation and economic development needs.

Speaking before a packed house of 900, MPC’s largest annual luncheon ever, the opponents chose decidedly different takes on the issues, and even the questions.

Obama spoke first, devoting most of his 20-minute presentation to the issue of education .

“The single most important determinant as to how successful we are going to be in addressing this [global] competition is going to be the state of our education system …

Let me emphasize that I am not one of those who believes that money is the entire solution to the education problem. As I’ve said repeatedly in almost every stop that I’ve made, ultimately success of our children is going to depend on parents and communities that emphasize academic achievement and that are providing the sort of nurturing and support that children need in order to make sure that when they come to school they come prepared to learn …

Having said that, money does make a difference. Money makes a difference in terms of whether we’ve got qualified teachers. Money makes a difference in terms of whether we’ve got sufficiently small class sizes that students who need individualized assistance can get that individualized assistance. And money makes a difference in terms of the infrastructure and facilities in which our children learn. There are some good things about No Child Left Behind. And I know that’s some, a little bit of sacrilege from the perspective of democrats to say that, but there are some good elements to it. All of us believe in high standards and all of us believe in measurability of those standards and all of us believe in accountability.

Keyes, who spoke for 20 minutes after lunch, began by challenging the premise of the questions MPC had posed.

The first thing I would like to look at in each of the three areas that I think are deeply related -- economic development, education, housing. I would like to suggest to you that in point in fact a lot of the problems we face particularly when it comes to low-income folks in America right now that they are actually manifestations of a single problem. The collapse of the family structure in key communities …

I would suggest that starting with the fundamental problem of education, we are dealing with a problem that government cannot handle …

If we are confronted with school systems gutted of their ability to establish a proper environment for motivation and self-respect -- notice I didn’t say self-esteem -- moral standards and self discipline, why do we keep funneling money into a structure that can’t produce the result we want even when we have side by side with that less expensive alternatives grounded in the faith cultures and moral cultures of the people. And by that I mean faith-based parochial schools, Christian schools, home schooling and we want to act like either they’re not there or we don’t dare make use of that. Does this make sense to someone because it turns out that would be a more cost effective use of our dollars.

On the issue of housing , again, the two men differed in the perspectives.

Obama stressed the need to protect existing federal housing resources.

Our ideal with respect to housing would be that people are earning enough on the job that they can go into the marketplace and get the housing they need. And I think all of us would prefer that. And I also think that the debate around housing has been framed in part looking backwards at some of the failed policies of the federal government with respect to public housing. I think those of us who have worked as I have in public housing in Chicago know that there have been many buildings in which none of us would want to raise a family. And that often times in part due to racism, in part due to the desire to isolate the poor in particular neighborhoods, that federal public housing has not been the best environment in which we would want people to raise their children. Having said that, it doesn’t make sense for the federal government to abandon the field, and that’s exactly what has happened …

Number one, I would try to stem the bleeding and I will fight vigorously when I go to the United States Senate to make sure that we’re not eliminating Hope VI programs and to make sure that our voucher program is not reduced …

Number two, we need to invest or look at investing in a national housing trust fund that would help facilitate federal financing to community development corporations through low income tax credits where they can use market base models to build mixed income housing throughout the region. There is a way for us to provide funding through the federal government that goes to community development corporations, many of them faith-based and those organizations are much more adept than the federal government is at actually constructing the housing. But they need the tax credits and the incentives to attract the investors in order to provide this sort of housing, and that’s something that I would encourage.

Keyes, pointing to one of the background documents MPC provided, challenged the premise of why there is an affordable housing shortage.

We look at the analysis and it tells us the major contributing factor to the difficulty in affording homes is not the lack of funding by the government, but the collapse of the family structure ...

You can appropriate all the money you want for every program in the world, [but] if you don’t administer those programs with an honest dedication to the good of the people they’re supposed to help, that money is literally money down a rat hole and the rat hole is in their apartment. What are you doing? What you’re doing is kidding the public and kidding yourself if you’re not willing to look at the extent to which a corrupt political system destroys our ability to act collectively to address the real problems of our people. And a corrupt political system, by the way, is, at the end of the day, not just a political problem, it’s a problem of integrity, honesty. It’s a problem of service; it’s a problem of character. It’s a problem of the moral culture of our politics, which we are not maintaining …

So, I am all in favor of programs that will introduce people to home ownership, that will help maintain them in decent and affordable housing, that will give them the leg up that they need to lay the foundation in their lives so that they can take over control of their life and move on to a better level of economic status.

On the issue of transportation , the candidates agreed that investing in our infrastructure is critical.

Said Obama, “Our freight system and our intermodal transportation system is one of the hidden gems of the Chicago economy. It produces an enormous amount of economic activity in this region, but it is extraordinarily difficult for the private freight companies, at this stage, to reinvest in the upgrading what’s needed to maintain the system. Right now they pay much more in; it would require about 40 percent investment to rebuild this capital-intensive area compared to other manufacturing. And as a consequence, it makes sense for us to provide them some assistance in partnership.”

Keyes said, “I think we also need to support what’s necessary in terms of infrastructure development, whether it’s freight rails, whether it’s light rail passenger trains, whether it’s the proper development of public transportation from suburbs to city. All these things are vital if people are to be able to function properly in their economic lives.”

Finally, in answering the question of economic development , Obama addressed the issues of jobs, particularly related to outsourcing and higher education.

I propose specifically that we close some of the tax loopholes that we provide to companies when they move jobs overseas and reserve those tax breaks and expand those tax breaks for companies that are investing in jobs and research and development in communities right here at home ...

One of the things we also have to focus on is higher education, because ultimately how successful we are in economic development in this state and in this region is going to have to do with whether our workers are trained for the high skilled jobs of the future, which means that we have to give them more access to college educations. And we’ve specifically proposed ways that we could eliminate subsidies for banks and financial intermediaries for direct loan programs and, and shift those into loan programs that would allow us to expand Pell Grants …

We also need to think not only about freight rail as infrastructure investment, but also look at things like broadband access for all communities, including low-income communities, that will allow them to participate in this new economy.

Keyes also spoke about jobs, with a focus on trade agreements.

If we in fact want to address the real problems of jobs and quality, then one of the things we’re going to have to do is get off our phony high horse about free trade. Now, I notice some people say that they believe in free trade, they think it’s a good thing. I don’t. Do you know why I don’t think free trade is a good thing? Because I think there’s no such thing as free trade. I think that it’s a misnomer. I think that it’s a lie. What we have is micromanaged trade and what we do is negotiate the agreements in which trade is micromanaged. And it has been micromanaged to the detriment of our industrial base and our workers. And it’s time that we acknowledge what’s going on and rejected the whole notion, and instead in a prudent statesman-like way, favoring trade but requiring that it be done in the best interest of our people.

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