A Place Called Hope?

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Tuesday was a special day. Every four years we have a wonderful opportunity to put aside partisan bickering and heal for a moment in an event so uniquely American, but also so important and consequential that the world stops to take notice.

This, of course, was not the typical inauguration. It was the inauguration of the first Black president. While we have been unable to elect a women (last time I checked, that was 55 percent of the voting public!) to the highest office in the land, we at least broke through the race barrier. And it’s about time. Too many white old men’s paintings align the walls of the White House.

As I write from our Toronto office, the interest in the new Administration in Canada is palpable, as it is in the rest of the world. The global interest is not just due to the “first” acknowledged above, but more likely due to the promise or hope of change. There’s something going on when a presidential candidate can attract 200,000 people in Berlin months before an election thousands of miles away.

Across the US, Democrats were obviously pleased with the outcome and the celebration, but so, too, were many Republicans who also have hope that things will turn around. With the exception of a small minority of Republicans, everyone was ready for change. An election provides us with an opportunity to suspend reality for a little while and think of things that could be.

But the honeymoon for the new President may be necessarily short. With looming federal deficits and rescue packages, combined with deep education cuts at the state level, people are hopeful that the new Administration can get a handle on the financial issues and ensure that education is prudently handled over the next several years. However, it will be very tough, very rocky road.

The Congress is currently debating the efficacy of an $825 billion stimulus package that President Obama is putting all his new-found weight behind. It will likely pass, but whether it passes with all the pork buried in it (and there is a LOT of pork in this one) is debatable. We will find out shortly, as this will not drag on for very long. The Democrats want to give the new President a victory (even at almost a trillion dollar price tag), and the Republicans don’t have the votes to make any serious threat to the bill.

Interestingly, education is a major component of the stimulus package. Approximately $140 billion are targeted for education, which includes increased funding for early childhood education, teacher education, and higher education. Title I – a core piece of No Child Left Behind, is slated to receive $13 billion in new funds over two years (it currently receives $13 billion a year in total), and the President is also offering up a substantial Pell Grant increase plus new tax credits (refundable, if you can believe!) for higher education. Whether these line items are “stimulus” or not is a healthy argument, but if nothing else, it shows that the president is sticking by his campaign rhetoric.

Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but I worry about this stimulus package, as I did for the $700 billion package and the potential bailout of out Detroit’s Big Three.

Let’s be truthful: it is difficult for us commoners to comprehend the fiscal catastrophe at hand. The situation is so uber-complex that most financial experts can’t agree on what should be done. The first $700 billion sailed through because everyone was afraid of NOT doing anything. This next injection is having more debate, but it will still be passed in record time. Never have we spent this type of money before with so little debate. It is truly scary. We all know something must be come, but “what” is the difficult question.

Back to the issue of the $140 billion, I always want more funding for education. I truly believe we don’t have enough money in the system to be world class. Too many students are left behind and we need to change how we do things in the classroom and in administrative offices around the country to invoke this change. Money isn’t the answer, but it helps produce the answer. I’m just not sold that this stimulus package is the right vehicle for educational change.

Without taking the entire bill apart, let me just make a few comments. I want higher Pell Grants. They have been too low for too long. But how much will this funding increase help when state systems and universities are increasing tuition by larger amounts? The president of Virginia Tech had the audacity the other day to say that his 11 percent tuition increase, over and above the 10 percent the year before, is okay and that higher education is still a “bargain” for Virginians. Bullshit. The Commonwealth of Virginia continues to go further and further down the affordability ladder and I find his comment repulsive. While Tech may need to raise tuition (as most other state colleges are doing), invoking the “bargain” statement shows how out of touch he apparently is to the needs of students and families.

So why is raising Pell a bad idea? It’s not. But this isn’t the vehicle for it and it isn’t enough. If they want to be serious about raising Pell, raise it by $2 or $3k. And put conditions on institutions AND states that will, in turn, raise tuition in light of these injections.

A second comment is reserved for the tuition credit. Back in 1997, Larry Gladieux, me, and many higher education analysts argued for a refundable tax credit. We didn’t like the idea of a tax credit, anyway, because it was completely a vote-gainer and not good public policy. But if it was going to happen, we wanted it refundable (i.e., those with no tax liability get a check in the mail). In the end, refundability didn’t fly because it was cost prohibitive (isn’t that funny now?) and Congress felt that the Pell Grant was the mechanism for low-income students. It is, but back to my point above….

Well, this year we will get our refundable tax credit, which is very interested in light of the President’s recent comments about entitlement spending. Pell Grants and tax credits are entitlements and are the gift that keeps on giving, long after this stimulus is spent.

So, where is the debate? This is my point. We should not stick these items in a stimulus bill that is on a fast track because we need a better dialogue about the development of prudent federal policy in education. We’re not going to have one, though, and that is a shame. All of this, by the way, will come on the backs of the students and families that may benefit from these policies. Future generations will be paying off these stimulus packages, plus the deficit financing of the past eight years, for decades to come. We have been asleep at the wheel and it’s time to wake up.

I’m starting the debate now. While the stimulus package may be passed in the next few days, EPI is hosting a National Capitol Summit on Education and the New Administration next Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington, DC. We’ve put together five panels, focused on the areas of No Child Left Behind, early childhood education, teacher education and professional development, college access and success, and college affordability and financial aid. We’ve assembled top experts from around the country to speak on these issues and to have open debate to help “educate” policymakers. I hope you attend.

As President Clinton was wont to say, he came from a place called Hope. We are all hopeful that this president can get a handle on the situation and push through prudent public policy that will enrich our nation, encourage creativity, and send a message to the world that we’ve got their back. But let’s not pass up our right for free debate to ensure that we get the best bang for our dollar, because, in the end, we’re paying for it. With interest.

P.S. I would like to acknowledge and thank the sponsors of next week’s National Capitol Summit: The Council for State Governments, Lumina Foundation for Education, the University of Maryland College of Education, Chartwell Education Group, The George Washington University Graduate School of Education & Human Development, The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, USA Funds, and the National Education Association, all deserve our thanks for their encouragement and financial contribution.

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