Monday, April 20, 2009

Student suggests education reform

Here is a student's policy suggestion and my reaction to it.

Public schools should be improved in more than one way and that higher education should be made more affordable. Public schools should go green and start recycling, use efficiency light bulbs, and use paper plates instead of plastic or Styrofoam. It’s time to stop the dumbing down of America, which stoops to its people and suppresses its great potential. Schools need to be a place where we learn not just the curriculum but respect for knowledge and history. Increasingly, the main diet at school is social skills.

Making higher education affordable is in the works with Mr. Obama. Reducing college costs has continued to be a hot topic and is growing to be a public concern. Jesse Jackson recently wrote an article in the Chicago Sun-Times suggesting that Congress pass a law to offer a 1% interest rate on federal student loans, including Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans. President Obama has promised to create the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a tax credit to ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free for most students, which covers two-thirds of the cost of tuition at the average public college or university. This is an important step forward, but we need to urge him to enact stronger legislation to streamline our system. He needs to make it efficient, fair, and affordable for all Americans, not simply those with good credit scores or financial security.

This affects our society deeply and dearly. We have to invest in our collective future by urging President Obama to make higher education more accessible and affordable for the millions of Americans hurting right now.
My reaction follows:

You have three main education policy proposals: you want a national policy to raise standards in K-12 education; you want a policy that encourages schools to lead society in becoming environmentally sustainable; and you want a federal policy to lower the costs of college education borne by students and their families. You claim that schools have lowered their academic standards, and currently devote too high a percentage of instructional time on improvement of social skills rather than academic ones. I disagree, but that point isn't central to your main policy suggestions.

I also doubt whether college education can cost much less than $10,000 to $14,000 per student per year, given the realities of the labor and technology and resources involved, and the labor market for the people involved with providing college education. So schools that are charging less than that probably can't be expected to lower costs much. But yes, schools that charge much more than that each year in tuition are probably spending too much on salaries or projects that aren't related to the core university missions of education, scholarship, and service. Even with such given costs in higher education, it ought to be the case that more of the expense is spread over the whole population (through taxation and government spending), since having a large segment of the population college-educated gives significant benefits to everyone in society. The costs that are borne by students and their families could be reduced by letting families borrow to help pay their share of college expenses at terms that yield no profit to anyone (perhaps with interest rates indexed to inflation so people only pay back exactly what they borrow in inflation-adjusted dollars).

You must be aware of the No Child Left Behind legislation (PL 107-110, The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001]. This law was supposed to raise standards. It does this by insisting that states set standards and measure how well children are progressing toward reaching those state academic standards. If schools fail to bring children up to standards there are consequences. Yet, you still say that American public schools are dumbing down their content. Wouldn’t the remedy to this supposed lack of high standards be to raise those state standards on which students are tested? Is there some other policy you can imagine where the federal government (which has very little constitutional basis with which to influenced public education, since that is mainly a policy realm left to local and state governments) can raise standards in schools? I suppose the federal government could establish a national secondary education graduation test and say that it would only hire workers or recruit military personnel who had passed the secondary education graduation test. That might raise standards inexpensively, but we would probably end up with a civil service dominated by people from Kansas and the Dakotas, and hardly anyone from Alabama or Mississippi or Arkansas would be able to get any federal jobs. The military would probably have to close its recruitment offices in South Carolina.

I like the idea of making public schools sustainable. When you think of a policy to make schools green (environmentally sustainable), you ought to think of specifically what your suggestion will imply in terms of actual policies. Just as PL 107-110 only allows federal education funding for states that implement standards and testing, we could have a law that reserved federal education funding for states where a certain percentage of schools had solar or wind energy power plants installed, food gardens growing some food for the cafeterias on the school grounds, and non-disposable trays or plates for serving food. The same law could mandate that all new school buildings over a certain size must be constructed using geothermal heating/cooling systems. That sounds good to me. The other main way to encourage environmental sustainability in schools is to have generous grant programs to help schools install solar and wind power generation stations on their roofs or in their school yards. Or, you could have federal grants generously support service learning projects where students worked with local governments and utility companies to measure energy use and document inefficiencies, or otherwise study and report on unsustainable burdens on the environment that could be removed. State environmental protection agencies could cooperate with high schools to set up pollution monitoring devices maintained and used by public school students, who would study pollutants and environmental regulations as part of their chemistry and biology classes along with their government and civics courses.

Your policy suggestion to make college more affordable is also very sensible. There are many ways to do this. You have mentioned the suggestion that the government provide Stafford and PLUS loans at 1% interest rates that can be used to pay tuition or purchase textbooks. You could also have a policy to define “reasonably priced higher education” and stipulate that the federal government would only give research grants to faculty at universities that met the criteria of being reasonably priced. You could even use federal hiring guidelines to discriminate in favor of graduates of less expensive universities. The federal government could require states to fund a certain percentage of the cost of university education for state residents, say 65%, and only give funding for education and infrastructure development to states that met that higher education funding requirement. The federal government could establish generous merit scholarship grants to be given to the top 10% of graduating high school seniors (in public schools) and also to the top 10% of graduating high school seniors across the nation (those who perform in the top 10% in that national secondary education graduation test I suggested as a tool to raise educational standards). If the federal government gave the best students a grant equal to 80% of tuition at the university of their choice there would be considerable pressure for students to learn well in secondary school, and if the “best students” were defined in terms of both national populations as well as specific school building populations, the best students at the poorest and lowest-performing schools would have just as much incentive to do well as those at the schools where already almost every student was doing well.

The $4,000 grant to help pay for college (The American Opportunity Tax Credit Act of 2009) seems like it would cover a freshman year at a community college. That is good. This would not cover very much of the costs of attending a good private school, but students and parents can decide where they want to go, and it’s typically families from wealthier backgrounds who send children to the more expensive schools, so the $4,000 grant seems fair (in that it will go far for the students who attend the less prestigious public junior colleges).

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