What Could (Should?) the President Do Now?

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Last week, the President gave his second-to-last State of the Union speech in front of a Joint Session of Congress. As we knew, he talked about his plan for free Community College for all students eligible for admissions. In my last post on January 13, 2015, I posited that the President’s plan was not necessary one of prudence. Of course, it is very easy to be critical when one is sitting from a position of no power or authority. So let’s pretend, for a moment, that I am in the President’s shoes facing a Republican-controlled Congress during one final, lame-duck session.

Putting politics as much to the side as possible (which takes incredible dexterity and copious doses of Tamiflu), the reality is that President Obama and the Democrats will likely not get any of their priorities passed during the 114th Congress. This is not atypical of a lame-duck Congress, but whereas President Clinton was able to move legislation during his final two years in office with a Republican-controlled Congress, the current President will have no such luck given his poor relationship with Republicans, and some say, with Democrats.

The Republicans will push forward their agenda with success, given that the Democrats can do little to get in their way. The only stroke to push the GOP off balance is with the President’s veto pen, which he said he would use on such issues as Obamacare, Dodd-Frank (Wall Street reforms), and Iran sanctions.

The President’s best weapon is the bully pulpit to draw attention to what the Republicans are and are not doing, which is not what the GOP wants to see as they prepare for a possible trifecta run in 2016.

The interesting thing about the President’s push for free college for students is it comes at the same time that the Republicans are pushing hard against the Common Core. Interesting because the only way that a pathway for free two-year college works is if incoming students are adequately educated. Opening up the financial and academic gates to two-year, open admissions schools only works if those entering have the academic wherewithal to complete. Currently, that isn’t close to the case.

The Common Core is one strategy to get students adequately prepared for high school graduation. If students graduate from high school, they should be able to go directly to college and succeed. Otherwise, they have not been properly educated to that point and should not have received a high school diploma. Certainly postsecondary education doesn’t make much sense if they can’t graduate appropriately from high school.

And even while Tea Partiers and those on the right wing of the Republican Party believe that the Administration is behind the development of the Common Core, this is not the case and never has been. The only thing the Administration has done is link the Common Core with its Race to the Top (RTTT) program. To be accurate, the Common Core was developed in part by the National Governors Association (NGA) and enjoyed significant support from Republican Governors, until, of course, it wasn’t cool to do that anymore. They were for it before they were against it.

It is also important to note that the Federal government does not have universal control over K-12 education. In fact, it has only marginal control over a state and local governments. However, state support for K-12, as with their support for higher education, has diminished in recent years. In fact, 30 states are providing less support for K12 than before the recession.[1] In total, the federal government antes up only 12 percent of K12 public education budgets.[2] What the feds have, and what the President has, are levers to produce results at the K12 level. No Child Left Behind was perhaps the most recent and most successful use of federal levers to ensure that states built data and assessment systems.

My argument against free college is the lack of proper entry and the lack of proper exit from the system. Our systems of education and training are simply not aligned, nor are they seamless. The Common Core is designed to be more in line with college access, even though higher education, writ large, has not been very involved or interested in aligning with high school. That’s a shame, and the President could provide direction here. Similarly, colleges have had little interest in helping place prospective graduates in post-grad jobs. They also have not tracked students to see how their preparation links to the workforce. This should be mandatory.

Instead of simply suggesting free college, which is horribly regressive, fiscally, the President could help by linking the importance of the Common Core with his proposal for universal college, while then linking graduation with alignment to the workforce. The reality is that many programs taught in our community college systems are outdated, outmoded, or simply obsolete. Putting more students into community college so they can graduate with an educated that is meaningless for the new economy isn’t a prudent use of public funds and subsidies.

What we need is leadership—from anywhere, and any political party—to help re-align our public education system to motivate, energize, and educate our youth so that they have a sense of accomplishment and direction for the future. When students are in middle and high school, they should have much better information on the future workforce and the education required for jobs and careers that are within their circles of interest. Let us make sure that schools provide high-level career development programs where students can test and taste different occupations so that when they do graduate from high school they have a much clearer idea of what they “may” want to do with their lives.

The federal government could go a long way to create better linkages and alignment between high school and college, both two- and four-year levels. The levers exist through federal funding, especially at the postsecondary level through Title IV programs.

And while the Administration talks about gainful employment, they need to ensure that public and private higher education have systems to track students, perhaps via the Wage Record Information Systems (WRIS), to see who is working and what they earn, let alone develop new ways to collect information on the linkage between jobs and prior education.

Too much money is put into postsecondary education with hardly a measure of return on investment for institutions or individuals. It is time to end this free ride for institutions. They have a responsibility to show how their efforts help graduates prepare and negotiate the future workforce.

The President can push these types of vehicles for change during his time, and he might get some agreement with Republicans to help build the economy. Let’s hope this Congress will try and do some good for the nation. I’m not counting on it, but it would be nice to be proud of Congress for something again. It’s been a long time.

[1] http://www.policyinsider.org/2014/11/state-support-for-k12-funding.html.

[2] http://febp.newamerica.net/background-analysis/school-finance.

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