Is Free College Really a Good Thing?

Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, joined by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, announced a plan to provide “free” college to all New Yorkers with a family income under $125,000. This isn’t the first time politicians have announced plans for free college, and it likely won’t be the last.

In making the announcement, Governor Cuomo noted that postsecondary education is a necessity in the current global, information economy and that many NYers graduate with “$30,000” in debt to secure a degree. “That is not fair. That is not right,” the New York Post quoted the Empire State governor as saying.

Yes, Cuomo is absolutely right that a postsecondary education is a must for all these days. And while we can get into the discussion on whether such programs end up throwing shade on community colleges and lead more individuals to pursue four-year degrees that don’t open many doors in that information economy, I’ll leave the fight over what “postsecondary education” means for a future post.

Instead, dear ol’ Eduflack wants to take issue with the notion that it isn’t right or fair that individuals take on student debt obtaining a four-year degree. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the average graduate of a four-year college (excluding the for-profits) leaves school with $30,100 in debt.  That works out to student loan payments of about $300 a month for the average college graduate.

That’s less than the monthly payment on an average car loan the recent graduate is likely paying. It is likely less than the average rent. And unlike the car and the rent, it is an asset that the graduate will carry with them throughout his or her life.

We can often forget that when we make things “free,” particularly things that one used to pay for, we reduce the perceived value of the item. When it is free, we don’t see to care as much about what we received. It was free, after all, so it is no biggie if we lose it, forget about it, or fail to use it.

When we pay for something, we see value. With a college education, we are forced to make choices. What postsecondary path is of most interest to us. What areas do we have the most skill. Where do we see potential careers. Are we willing to do the work necessary to turn our investment into a tangible product (our degree)?

When we take out loans, take on jobs, or even have families who can pay the tuition, we are less likely to seek that degree in underwater basketweaving and instead choose paths that are aligned with our interests, talents, and future goals. And that is a good thing.

Instead of free college, why not instead focus on college affordability? Why not ask if so many of those universities need the ever-growing endowments they have? Why not ask how colleges and universities are reducing costs to their students, and not just their operating costs? Why not ask when a two-year degree may make far more sense than a four-year degree? Why not ask whether it makes sense for that “free” college to essentially go to pay for remediation? Why not ask how we ensure it takes students four years, and not six or seven, to earn a four-year degree? Why not ask how we ensure college focuses on the student, and not the institution? Why not ask how we ensure a college education is about what is learned, and not just what is taught? Why not?

After World War II, about 5 percent of Americans held a college degree. Today, we are up to about 40 percent. Are those millions and millions of Americans chumps for personally sacrificing, taking on debt, and gaining college degrees when they could have just waited around for someone to give it to them for free?

I don’t mean to be the skunk at the garden party, but if we think free college is the answer to all that ails us, we are going to be severely disappointed. Not only does free college diminish the value of a postsecondary degree, but it also begins to draw further distinctions between where one earned that degree. How long before employers begin asking whether that free degree from the state college is as valuable as the paid-for degree from the private college up on the hill?

Efforts to bring equity to postsecondary education through free college could end up bringing a whole new era of inequity to the discussion.

 

Broadening One’s View of True Community

For the past week (and for much of the next week), Eduflack is out at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (yes, it truly is a hard-knock life). I’m incredibly fortunate to be a part of the GSB’s 2016 Executive Program for NonProfit Leaders. For someone who spends most of his days focused on the topic of adult learning, it is a fascinating experience, being part of a cohort of 55 Type A individuals who are all trying to solve the problems facing their organizations and their sectors.

Half of the cohort represents organizations here in the United States, half represent NGOs around the world. The class is about equally split between men and women. Age distributions range from superstars in their early 30s to seasoned experts likely closer to the ends of their careers instead of the starts.  It’s safe to say that no two people share the same story, or at least one that is wholly similar.

And that’s likely what makes this program so valuable. Don’t get me wrong, I love all (or at least most) of my friends and frenemies in the education policy sector. But we have to admit that our communities, and our engagement with said communities, are fairly homogeneous. I often feel like the same people have been having the same conversations for years now. It doesn’t matter if it is a harsh reformer versus status quoer debate, a fierce discussion between the P-12 and higher education sectors, or even a scrum among educators and advocates with no teaching experience. We are largely comfortable in our community, and remain comfortable even when we have significant disagreements.

In recent years, the only true time of uncomfortability was earlier this year, following the NSVF conference and the discussions on where Black Lives Matter and other social justice issues fit in the education reform movement. For the first time, new voices and perspectives were injected into the process. But even there, comfortability has largely returned. As the NAACP called for a freeze of public charter schools, the same battle lines and the same allied groups returned to their comfortable roles.

A few years ago, the Broad Center’s Becca Bracy Knight launched an effort called Just Have Coffee. Her idea was a simple yet important one. If we are truly committed to improving public education opportunities for all kids, we need to build bridges with those we may not always agree with. Just having coffee with a supposed enemy, and building a personal relationship with someone on the other side, can go a long way toward making meaningful progress and just getting things done. Knight was right then, and she is still right today.

In just a week, I have likely learned more about how to move ideas forward than I did in two years running an education advocacy organization. And that is largely because I am learning beyond the traditional education echo chamber in which we all operate.

During my stay here on The Farm, there are no other higher education voices here. In terms of K-12 education in the United States, I have one colleague (who runs a program in Los Angeles to get first-generation college students into the best institutions possible) and one who runs a small charter school network in Northern California. I have no one worried about what we meant for ESSA to say out when HEA is going to be reauthorized or whether the recent Connecticut school funding court decision is a blessing or curse for the school choice movement. 

Instead, I am learning from those who are running major social service organizations in countries like Austalia and New Zealand, heading youth development efforts in Colombia and Hong Kong, leading women’s health issues in India, Africa, and here in the States. I’m gleaning great insights from those developing justice reform media outlets and micro lending organizations. I’m even learning much from those selling toilets in Kenya and turning waste into fertilizer to strengthen farming efforts in central Africa.

We are able to have very uncomfortable conversations about race and gender and class with no boundaries. More importantly, we are able to discuss our own mistakes and failures in such a way that we can learn from one another. I’m able to push new friends on organizational change and disruption efforts. I’m able to learn, without worrying about sharing too much or of how what I share will be used later.

The challenge before me is taking the lessons learned here, and actually applying them to my own efforts moving forward. It is easy to listen and to talk, yet fart more difficult to use what was heard and said to change (and improve behaviors). It becomes a goal, a goal I hope to achieve.

But I would also challenge Becca Bracy Knight and those who embraced the #JustHaveCoffee concept to evolve the idea. How do begin to reach out to those beyond the education echo chamber? How do we engage and learn and build community with those in health, social services, and social justice communities? How do we build communities that allow for failure, even on high-stakes issues, as long as we learn from those failures? How do we have those uncomfortable conversations, where we discuss our own failures and our own misperceptions in a space of learning and not of judgment? How?    

Reforming Education Reform

Earlier this week, the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio wrote of “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform.” As Pondiscio notes:

Like the proverbial frog in a pot, education reformers on the political right find themselves coming to a slow boil in the cauldron of social justice activism. At meetings like New Schools Venture Fund and Pahara (a leadership development program run by the Aspen Institute), conservative reformers report feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, and cowed into silence. There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender. And it does not include conservative ideas.

The gauntlet has been thrown down. In response, Justin Cohen and a number of self-described white education reform leaders offered in an open letter:

We must admit the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white through the early 2000s. In under-representing the communities that we hoped to serve, particularly people of color, in the leadership and decision-making processes of reform, we created a movement that lacked the ability to drive durable change.

As a recovering “white education reform leader,” I’ve actually spent a far amount of time thinking about these very issues over the past three or four years. On the specific issue, Pondiscio is correct in one important regard. Education reform is stronger when it has all political views and all ideological perspectives on the team. For every one of the anonymous conservatives he quotes in his piece, there also needs to be reformers coming from the Democrats for Education Reform side and the social justice community.

But the point Cohen makes, and it is a point that was first and strongly stoked by Leading Educators’ Jonas Chartock on his Facebook page soon after the Pondiscio piece was published, is that education reform needs to be about far more than the market-driven solutions Pondiscio writes about. It can’t be about conservatives and the wealthy funders supporting the “cause” feeling uncomfortable. It needs to be about the kids and communities that are yearning for such a solution.

During my reform days, I described this as the hearts versus minds phenomenon. Too many ed reformers are focused on the latter, believing that if one dazzles with facts and figures, and shows strong enough Excel spreadsheets of data to those resisting, that reform will happen. The data-driven, market-focused approach to reform leaves many focused on the operational and systemic sides of school improvement. We argue about school structure, and why a school should be chartered and how it should be stripped of the teachers’ unions. We call for stronger teacher evaluation tied to student test scores. We use the term equity mainly when tied to the concept of school funding, largely when it comes to comparing traditional public schools to charters. We try to position ourselves as the smartest people in the room, believing that if we use enough of that data, even the strongest of opponents will have to come to his or her senses and see our way is the only way.

But school improvement isn’t that simple, and it certainly isn’t that clean. Ultimately, the theory of change is about very real children, families, and communities, and not about columns and rows in a spreadsheet. It’s about taking financial resources from already under-resources public schools to give them to charters who had previously promised to deliver a better education for fewer dollars. It’s about attacking teachers unions, while trying to enlist parents who themselves are in labor unions and trying to convince good teachers to go to the very schools we’ve labeled as failing and hopeless. And its about believing stronger numbers and market-driven solutions can wipe away generations of institutional racism and inequities, even when we may use the term “urban” students because we are uncomfortable talking specifically about Black and brown kids.

In acknowledging their own shortcomings, Cohen et al (and I’d throw Eduflack on that list as well), admit that, as reformers, we have failed the families and communities we have purported to be fighting for. While reform has helped provide safer learning environments for many kids, and has provided greater educational opportunities for those involved, it at best mitigates some of the social obstacles so many face today. To believe that improved school opportunities for some addresses the problems of poverty and racism for far more is a line of thinking that none of us can actual subscribe to.

When I was leading a state-based education reform organization, I worked hard with the leaders of local churches to ensure their voices were heard in the legislative debate. One weekend, on the Saturday before Easter, I was in the basement of a particular church, talking to a group of pastors. As we were talking about next steps, the Bishop present turned to me and said, “You know what your problem is, you’re white.” And he was absolutely correct. No matter all that I knew, no matter how much data I came armed with,  no matter how convincing and eloquent I might be, it was far easier for me to talk it than it was to live it. I would never experience what the parents and kids I was advocating for experience on a daily basis.

After that gathering, the pastors asked what I wanted from them. I went in prepared to tell them I needed their help to advocate for my agenda. But after having spent that morning listening to their concerns, my response was quite different. I told them something like, “It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what is best for your congregants. So I’m not going to do that. I would just ask that you get involved. Have your voices heard. While I’d love for those voices to agree with me, it is far more important that you be a part of this process.”

And they were. In united voice, a voice last heard in the state during the fair housing debates a few decades prior, those pastors and their congregants made clear what was the best path for education in the state. And change happened as a result.

My proudest moment from that time was being witness to those pastors and the leadership they displayed.

Looking back on that time, I wish I had done more to demonstrate the equity and understanding I often preached. I wish I had been stronger, particularly about how we built our movement. I wish I had focused more on the people and the hearts of the community, and less on the data and trying to be the smartest in the room. And I wish I could pretend that racism and poverty were something that could be eliminated by a bill signing or an ad campaign.

Chartock, Cohen, and others have engaged in an important discussion, and one that needs to continue. Until the reform community is clear on WHY it is advocating reform, what it hopes to achieve, and who it serves, we can bring the true change we are seeking. I applaud them for publicly stating what many of us have been telling ourselves for years.

Now what can I do?

Taking a Long View on State Cuts to School $

Last week, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy issued an audacious idea as his administration struggles to balance a growing state budget with shrinking state dollars. With a budget deadline quickly approaching, Malloy recommended that Connecticut zero out state funds for public schools in 28 of the state’s wealthiest communities.

The Democratically controlled legislature responded to its Democratic governor with the expected retort, not until you pry the state’s checkbook from our cold, dead fingers, as the Hartford Courant reported.

Sure, it is politically unpopular for anyone, particularly a Democratic governor, to suggest cutting public education dollars in any way, shape, or form. But when state law requires a balanced budget and the coffers are much lighter than anyone expects, what are your options? The current budget already reflects significant cuts in higher education, hospitals, social services, and just about every other program Dems hold dear. The dollars have to come from somewhere.

In many ways, Malloy should be (silently) applauded for touching a budget rail few ever want to touch. And at the end of the day, he is right. In the name of shared sacrifice, is it better to cut a few school dollars from the incredibly well resources communities in a largely wealthy state, or to cut all schools? Or to put a finer point on it, better to have Greenwich wait a year before upgrading their tablets or to force Hartford or Bridgeport to eliminate a few science teacher positions in their high schools?

Budget decisions are always easy … until we make it an either or decision. No one ever wants to reduce K-12 spending … until they see the increased tax bill that might come with it. We want all schools to be treated the same … until we see the price tag that goes with equal funding or need-blind budgeting. We all want a fully funded school cost sharing system until we realize it means deeper cuts at the local university or the closing of our neighborhood hospital.

So I’ll say it. The 28 communities Malloy offered for a zeroing out of school funds from the state will not feel the pain. With virtual certainty, I can say that classrooms in those communities will not suffer because of the elimination (if it ever becomes law).

I’ll also say that those same school districts should look at this as a golden opportunity to smartly play the long game. If the state is zeroing your schools out of the budget, negotiate the trade off. Seek reductions in administrative oversight from the state. Lessen the reporting required by the state department of education. Gain new flexibility in terms of how you address state requirements and standards. Obtain the ability to pilot and try new things that the state may ordinarily oppose.

There is a reason states chose not to participate in NCLB and then others chose not to play Race to the Top. They didn’t want the strings attached to the money. Now they have greater flexibility to do things their ways, as long as they meet the overall goals set for K-12 in their state.

It’s the same reason you see many state universities opting for funding beyond the legislature. At my alma mater, the University of Virginia, state dollars represent less than 10% of the total spending on grounds. Schools like U.Va.’s law school, graduate business school, and med school actually take zero dollars from the state just so they can enjoy greater control and increased flexibility.

I get that school districts expect to get a certain number of dollars from the state each year. As a school board chairman in Virginia, I waited with great anticipation to see what the final formula would be from the Virginia General Assembly. But I also saw the volumes and volumes of reports our district had to submit to that same state each year. And I know our district likely would have given up a few state dollars to lessen our reporting burden.

I get that Governor Malloy’s proposal will never make it into the final bill. No legislator wants to go home and say he voted to deny his community school dollars. But perhaps such a proposal should become law. And maybe, just maybe, those affected communities would see they hold great leverage in the deal, and could reshape their relationships with the state moving forward.

In public education, it needs to be about the long game. Is a few hundred thousand dollars today (money that could easily be raised through a community silent auction in many of those towns) worth greater autonomy and reduced administrative burdens for many years to come? Ask a local school superintendent. You might be surprised by the answer when it is made an either or question.

 

Teaching True Meaning of First Amendment Rights

For weeks, Eduflack has been biting his tongue on the rash of intolerance offered in the name of tolerance on our college campuses. Too many stories of free speech being squashed in the name of “safe zones,” too many instances of aspiring “activists” believing Constitutional rights only apply to those individuals and causes that one completely agrees with.

Over at Medium this week, I wrote about our desperate need for today’s college students to truly understand the rights that they claim to embrace. Quoting everything from the First Amendment to President Andy Shepherd’s monologue from the movie, The American President, I just had my “I’m mad as hell” moment.

As I wrote:

But a funny thing happened between a generation known for its passionate advocacy for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War and now. Today, too many see those freedoms and speech and assembly with self-inflicted blinders, believing such rights are meant to apply only to those who agree with us.

As originally conceived, the First Amendment was written to ensure a protected place for reasoned dissent in our new nation. Today, it is used as a weapon to protect against disagreement or opposing viewpoints and silence those who may see things differently.

When, exactly, did we allow the First Amendment to be bastardized to prevent civil discourse and public debate? When, exactly, did we determine it was OK to defend free speech, but only if it was speech we agreed with?

I know it is Thanksgiving week and all, but give it a read. We should all be thankful for our rights, whether we are red, blue, or purple with sparkly pink polka dots.

“The Strength of Street Knowledge”

Yes, I was one of the those fans that lined up this past weekend to see Straight Outta Compton, the bio-pic on the rise and fall of the musical genius known as N.W.A. And yes, I was one of those kids, one of those white boys from the suburbs, who was a huge fan of the powerful lyrics Ice Cube wrote about a world I would never understand.

As a kid, I didn’t listen to heavy metal. I wasn’t into alternative music like REM or U2 or Depeche Mode. No, I was into rap. As a young kid growing up in North Jersey, Run DMC was my gateway music. I was immediately taken by the lyrics and the poetry. As I got older, my preferences got a little harder. I loved the post-License to Ill Beastie Boys. I couldn’t get enough of Public Enemy. I cherished a bootleg cassette I had of 2 Live Crew (which I just told my mother about last week). And I got amped listening to N.W.A.

I looked at music like Public Enemy and N.W.A as I assume my parents’ generation looked at music by folks like Bob Dylan. It was protest music. It spoke truth to power. It gave voice to many previously without words. And to kids like me, it pulled back a curtain so we could catch just a glimpse of the world, of the struggles, and of the realities that were foreign to us, but important to our development into men (and into hopefully responsible men).

As I got older, my musical tastes matured. In college, I took a real liking to 3rd Bass (it was even on my college answering machine, where they sampled JFK). Jay-Z and Eminem and Snoop remain on my regular play lists today. But N.W.A and Public Enemy are still my go-tos.

I’ve introduced my kids to a little of it, namely Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. They sadly know Snoop from his work with Katy Perry. And they love Salt n Pepa from the Geico commercials (yes, I’ll wipe a tear).

Twenty-five years ago or so, I was taken in by the movie Do The Right Thing. Originally, the draw was the music (obviously). But I still regularly watch the movie (it is one of the staples on my iPad) because of the story it tells. As an Italian-American, I feel a personal connection. I still don’t want to accept that no matter how open-minded we all can claim to be, that we all have a break point, and we all have that inner Sal (or worse, the inner Pino) with us. I don’t want to ever be so blind to the realities around me.

So this weekend, I watched Straight Outta Compton, and was completely taken in. The music reminded me of my childhood, while the story was one I was aware of, but not completely familiar. In many ways, it was a Shakespearean story, as the lives of young men who would grow up to be the Dr. Dre of Beats headphones fame, the actor known as Ice Cube, the felon Suge Knight, the up-and-comers Tupac and Snoop, and the visionary Eazy E were intertwined over a relatively short period.

How does all of this relate to my regular writings here on Eduflack? I’m not exactly sure. I do know that my childhood, and the soundtrack of that childhood, is an important piece of who I have become and the work that I do. I know that the social, justice, and educational issues hit in those songs continue to be topics that we struggle with today. And I realize that there are still far too many kids, and they were kids back then, whose voices aren’t being heard.

This morning, I found myself listening to nothing but rap on my morning run. It gave me a lot to think about and a lot to reflect on. As luck would have it, I hit the home stretch as a song from Darryl McDaniels (of Run DMC fame) hit the shuffle. The song came out in 2007, just a few months before the adoption of my son was official. Every time I’ve heard the song since then, I think of my son. And those thoughts usually come with tears.

That’s why rap is the soundtrack of my life. It isn’t because I was a suburban kid thinking I was an OG. I wasn’t pretending I was understanding what it was like to come of age in South Central. It is because I happened to be listening to Public Enemy as I was driving back from a college internship interview, only to learn later that the Rodney King verdict had come in. And it is because in his song Just Like Me, DMC captures feelings about my kids and adoption that I couldn’t previously verbalize.

Taylor Swift (even when she tries to rap) and Meghan Trainor and even Katy Perry don’t make me think. Dre, Cube, and E do. each and every time.

Racism, Empathy, Liberals, and Baseball

As I’ve previously written, I am honored to be part of the Ashoka Foundation’s Changemaker Education effort, serving as an Ashoka Empathy Ambassador. This past week, I wrote over at Medium on a very personal experience from my childhood, where I heard supposedly liberal, open-minded parents demonstrate some textbook closed-mindedness when it came to busing and the impact of bringing kids from the inner city into their suburbs.

As I wrote, reflecting on my experiences as a kid:

I want to be empathetic about it. But I’m not necessarily talking about showing empathy for my friend. I want to better understand what in the world can motivate a supposedly liberal, educated adult male to be so thoughtless, so careless, and so ridiculous with his thinking. I want to know how adults who can preach tolerance and equality, and talk about the need for civil rights, can mean it as long as it doesn’t extend to their own local parks and schools.

I hope you’ll take the time to read the full piece over at Medium here, and to really spend some time with some of the great writing being offered through the entire Ashoka Changemakers effort.