Post Academic

How Pending Legislation Can Affect Colleges

Posted in The Education Industry by doctoreclair on July 26, 2010
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My rough impression is that education in the United States has not been much of a political priority for the last few decades. Much of the little debate that does take place is dictated by the libertarians, who have been more active than the left on this issue. It seems that the most powerful new idea brought to these debates has been, lamentably enough, the privatization of education. To call the right’s agenda privatization is only part of the story, though, since capitalism has been accompanied by its usual paradoxical bedfellow, statism. (In his histories of the rise of capitalism, Perry Anderson keeps coming back to the point that the growth of capital markets depended on the extension of state authority, rather than on democratization. Recent history shows that this process is ongoing, our current weird twins being national testing and charter schools.)

The latest chapter in this history has been the education initiatives currently before Congress. I’ll take a quick look at these, and consider possible implications for higher education.

Congress is dealing with the problem that state budget declines will cause between 100,000 and 300,000 teachers to lose their jobs this year. A first attempt to provide funding, known as “Edujobs,” failed after Republicans and even some Democrats have denounced the proposed funding as “bailout.” (Consider the baffling logic of this attack: If state governments announced that they were having trouble paying for some of the unfunded Homeland Security mandates, and Congress stepped up to fund those mandates, would anyone have dared to call it a bailout?)
More after the jump!

To sidestep these objections, a second attempt to provide the missing funds was made by Congress in July. Rather than adding to the deficit, this measure would have taken money out of the existing $100 billion education budget to save the teachers’ jobs. Over the objections of the Obama administration, Representative David Obey (D-WI) has been trying to pass the bill to supply the missing funds so that those hundreds of thousands of teachers can hang on to their jobs … but that effort faltered last Thursday night. Meanwhile, we’ve gotten a lot closer to the beginning of the new school year, and all of those teachers’ jobs are still in limbo.

So how does this all relate to the state of higher ed? In a public humanities department, where I work, teaching is the career goal most of my students have in mind. My students are training to be teachers. Even those who haven’t made teaching their first choice share the unspoken assumption that teaching jobs will be available for them when they graduate. Even if that journalism job doesn’t pan out, well, there’s teaching. Or so they believe.

It makes sense that the Obama administration has made college preparation for future teachers a special priority. What doesn’t make sense is the administration’s unwillingness to provide enough funding to ensure that those jobs are still available.

First, the positive side of the Obama plan. In a June 21 interview with Tony Harris, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained that the administration will be providing a major incentive for students to head into public and nonprofit jobs. Duncan explained to Harris how it works:

HARRIS: I look at the pay scale [for teachers] and I’m thinking about starting a family here. I’ve got student loans that I’ve got to pay off now. And the two don’t equate. What do we do about that?

DUNCAN: We’ll fix that. This is a huge deal and the public doesn’t know this. As part of the health care legislation that passed recently, we also had a higher education bill. This puts $36 billion — $36 billion in additional money for Pell Grants, put $2.5 billion behind HPCUs [historically black colleges and universities] and other minority serving institutions. Put $2 billion behind community colleges.

But maybe the most important — or one of the most important pieces of that is something called Income Based Repayment, IBR. And starting in 2014, if you graduate from college and go into the public service … Work at a legal aid clinic, work at a medical clinic in a disadvantaged community, after 10 years of public service, your loans will be erased. Gone. And up to that point, your loans will be held down to 10 percent of your income.

That’s a great selling point I can use in advising my new students this fall, many of whom will be in the class of 2014. And Duncan is right that the public doesn’t know about it — I didn’t even know about it until I happened to turn on CNN, and I’m supposed to be advising future teachers.

But here’s the second point: the danger of the Obama plan. Duncan’s ideas sit uneasily within a larger agenda of encouraging charter schools and undermining public education — as the latest news about his objections to David Obey’s legislation suggests. I worry about Duncan’s commitment to preserving teachers’ jobs, and his support for education policies that echo Bush’s is disquieting. Loan forgiveness for choosing a public-service job is wonderful, but only if those jobs are actually available.

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