U.S. Sen. Tim Scott gave the keynote address at the debut conference of a policy research and advocacy group formed by former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint earlier this year.
The Policy Forum invited Scott, as supporter of expanding school choice in the public and private sector, to speak specifically on education because of his story of overcoming poverty and finding success.
Understanding the importance of education and hard work through the example of his grandparents helped him find success, Scott said.
The lessons of his grandfather taught him that "There is greater opportunity in America today than he ever would have dreamed to be possible."
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Scott said that seeing his grandfather, who picked cotton for 50 cents a day and had a third-grade education but could not read at the time, reading the newspaper everyday and his grandmother's work ethic taught him that "education and hard work are the closest things to magic."
His grandfather "was trying to signal to his kids and his grandkids the power of education," Scott said.
Scott said the question on how to improve public education is to ask, "How do we turn opportunity into a manifested, tangible result of fewer people struggling to make ends meet?"
Free enterprise and free markets are the answers, he said.
Scott notes several challenges public education faces, including that some children enter the system unprepared, which may require more focus on reaching children when they're four or five or younger, he said.
"Sometimes we criticize the education system for producing bad results," but sometimes children are not prepared, he said.
Helping struggling students catch up and rethinking what programs are offered in the summer months, when many students lose what they have learned, are also important, he said.
But, Scott added, he supports locally-driven solutions to these problems, not a top-down approach where government intervenes "from the cradle to the grave."
That effort starts with encouraging parents to take a stronger role in educating their children is one solution.
Scott also said it would be helpful to look at other countries where students are excelling such as Finland and in Asia.