American higher education politics just changed, maybe

It’s the middle of 2015 and in the United States presidential candidates are marking their territory for next year’s elections. Higher education policy has loomed surprisingly large so far, and the various postures and proposals sketch out something of a break in the way Republicans and Democrats have been handling education.

A quick refresher: ever since 1960 or so the two parties had reliably opposed higher ed positions.  Republics saw campuses as overstuffed with money and radicalism, while Democrats defended schools as cultural and economic fountainheads.

This changed during the first decade of the 21st century, as Democratic support helped George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind pass into law, lending political power to reforming school operations, often over teachers’ wishes.  A bipartisan tendency grew.

Signing into law No Child Left Behind.

Note the key presence of Ted Kennedy with George W. Bush.

Then the 2008 recession and the 2009 death of leading education defender senator Ted Kennedy drove many Democrats more deeply into the arms of education reform.   Slashed tax receipts led legislators of both parties to cut K-12 and postsecondary funding.  A new generation of Democratic leaders saw reforming all of education as a cause, especially when institutions resisted.  This is where president Obama and his education secretary come in, for example, with their drive to reform all of education, from Race to the Top to building a (still incomplete) college ratings system.

This period also saw Chicago mayor and Obama ally Rahm Emanuel battle with that city’s teachers unions.  The well-named Democrats for Education Reform appeared.  In 2010 Waiting for Superman was released, very critical of K-12 (that Democratic bastion), and created by the same man who directed Al Gore’s climate change film (in 2006) and a short about president Obama for the 2012 Democratic party national convention.  These Democrats fought for greater accountability, more testing, less teacher and school autonomy, lower union influence, and more technology than instructors requested.

And this Democrat-Republican educational rapprochement continues today, at least in terms of policies and the work of sitting politicians.  This week Arne Duncan called for more accountability for colleges and better guidance into jobs for students.  A major Department of Education committee asked for more power: specifically,

the 18-member panel said that it should be “the final decision-making authority on accrediting agency recognition.”

The panel, often referred to as NACIQI, also wants greater power to force accreditors to focus more on student learning and student outcomes.

As Elizabeth Sanders observed this year, “There is bipartisan support for the idea of more college accountability.” Call it political expediency or the triumph of neoliberalism; either way, many Democrats found themselves not too far from Republicans.

Cthulhu for PresidentAnd yet things seem to be changing, one decade into the consensus.  The bipartisan alignment might be breaking up.

Consider: every Democratic presidential candidate has called for massive public funding for higher education.  Bernie Sanders kicked this off in May, urging debt-free access to public colleges and universities.  In one recent interview Sanders was direct:

“You want to go to college? You have the ability to go to college? You have the desire to go to college? Public colleges and universities will be tuition-free,” because education must be a right of all people.

Hillary Clinton also thinks higher ed is too expensive, although she doesn’t go as far as Sanders.  And now Tommy Carcetti, er, Martin O’Malley also wants to make college less expensive.

Meanwhile, one blue state’s Democratic governor, Kate Brown of Oregon, just signed a law making community college tuition-free.

In contrast, Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker succeeded in pushing through more budget cuts for that state’s public universities, while knocking out a key piece of tenure support.  Meanwhile, a senior and the most education-centric Republican, Lamar Alexander, published an editorial proclaiming that higher ed is actually fine, a great investment, and therefore not requiring public intervention.  It is not too expensive in this view.  Through these representative Republicans the GOP either wants to go after education with several axes, against what this year’s Democratic candidates propose, or just want to leave the sector alone, again unlike the Dems.

Other Republicans offer different plans and ideas.  Bush(3) thinks student debt is the result of students not working hard enough, and that’s because

“These days on campus, he said, students have “the French work week. It’s not the kids’ fault,” though, but that of their school administrators, who now consider a full course load 12 credit hours instead of 15.

It’s a nice appeal to the classic GOP emphasis on hard work and bootstrapping.  In contrast, Ted Cruz is more interested in ending racial preferences in admissions:

Cruz argued vigorously against race-based admissions, and warned that de-prioritizing academic merit in selecting applicants would inevitably lead to unintentional injustices. As evidence, he pointed to Ivy League schools that used to enforce “negative quotas” to keep from accepting too many Jews. “We see it now with colleges in California … negative quotas against Asian students because academically they’re excelling.”

Donald Trump – no, I won’t write anything about him.  I’ve been online long enough to know better than to feed trolls.

Interestingly, technology plays a very small role in these divided politics.  There isn’t much talk of shifting face-to-face schools to online, and no mention of MOOCs.

However, all of these differences may just be marketing or tactical moves.  We’re still early – far too early! – on in the primary season, and there are nearly twenty candidates in play.  Differentiation is key.  Perhaps once both parties settle on respective nominees they will realign on higher education, or downplay it as an issue.

If that doesn’t happen, and the parties mark out clearly distinct higher education approaches, we just saw the end of an important decade of bipartisanship.

(No Child Left Behind signing photo from Wikipedia); Cthulhu icon from this Facebook page)

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3 Responses to American higher education politics just changed, maybe

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