Paging Reality: Grading Obama on education

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I’m not normally a big supporter of President Obama’s agenda, but there are a few things I like in the new education plan that he proposed nearly two weeks ago.

Now that he has laid out yet another plan for improving our education system, it seems like a good time to grade his biggest education proposals from his five years in office.

New rating system tied to federal aid funding – B+

When the president first announced his intention to create a new rankings system for students, critics rightly noted there are already many private rankings systems. Those systems, however, haven’t impacted the federal aid available to certain universities. Under the president’s proposal, that would change. That’s a great way to bring some semblance of market forces into an academic world that has long resisted them.

However, the devil could be in the details here. If a corrupt member of Congress or executive branch employee tweaked the rules to benefit preferred institutions, punish religious or other non-state owned institutions, or create other pet projects, then this could be a disaster. One only needs to look to the tax code and military contracting process to see we have shameless legislators who will try. Keeping a formula immune from special interest group lobbying will be critical. While I’m not sure that’s possible, I think the president is headed in the right direction with this proposal.

Forgiving student loan debt – D+

President Obama’s proposal is to cap monthly payments to 10 percent of a student’s income and forgive excessive student loan debt after 10 years for public servants or 20 years for those working in the private sector.

I completely understand the desire to cap monthly payments, but the loan forgiveness plan is a really bad idea.

We’ve all known college students who refused to work while in school saying they simply were “too busy.” The rest of us who were working knew they were wrong. Still, their tuition expenses and financial costs had to be paid from somewhere. Some have wealthy parents who write fat checks to universities, but many take out excessively large student loans.

Now years later, after watching these students live the high life while in school or choose a financial plan that makes literally no sense (i.e. going over $200,000 in debt to get a degree in social work), President Obama is asking taxpayers to subsidize these students’ poor choices.

BarackObama.com says this is “rewarding responsible students.” As if the irony of that statement wasn’t enough, the site then notes the goal is to help students “make decisions about the future based on career goals rather than the price of tuition.”

Apparently, the president’s campaign staff and supporters believe responsibility means not considering costs while making decisions. On a positive note, at least we now understand where the president’s economic agenda came from.

I understand that people make mistakes, and I would support allowing students awash in student loan debt to declare bankruptcy after a period of 10 years after graduation. However, there needs to be a cost in the form of bankruptcy or something similar. If taxpayers subsidize poor choices with no consequences, we can expect far more poor choices to be made. The government certainly shouldn’t prioritize students who make poor choices over ones who make responsible ones. If we want to build a country in which people who do things the right way get rewarded, this is a counter-productive step.

Expanding Head StartF

This is one of the worst ideas to come out of this administration. For the president who claimed he wanted to “restore science to its rightful place” to turn his back on the consensus of research on Head Start is embarrassing. Simply put, Head Start doesn’t have any meaningful long-term impact on students, according to studies commissioned by the government.

It was telling that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s op-ed in defense of this proposal tried desperately to distinguish it from Head Start and then braved a direct, albeit misleading, assault on the government studies of the program by noting that Head Start isn’t compulsory. Presumably the president’s expansion wouldn’t be compulsory either, so the distinction seems like a false one.

Only in Washington is the solution to a failing program to greatly expand it into a universal entitlement without proving the model first. If the problems are easy to fix as Duncan suggests, then the government should fix them, conduct more research and present the findings to the public. Until then, this remains a horrible idea.

Overall – C-

The president’s education agenda has included a good idea and a couple really bad ones. Still, I’ll give him credit and round up for a (barely) passing grade.

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