Changing Higher Education

Jack Fleming, Columnist

Ignore Betsy DeVos. Instituting school choice, the school voucher system, and allowing fraudulent for-profit colleges to thrive simply would not increase the quality and accessibility of education. As the 2018 midterm elections slowly approach, we must think about the sort of education policy that is truly effective in ensuring that all Americans – regardless of race and socioeconomic status – have access to quality education. Just like healthcare, education is a fundamental right, not a privilege; it is incumbent upon us to support policies that reflect this notion.

Applying free market ideas to education policy in the manner the Trump administration advocates typically yields disastrous results. In the case of for-profit colleges, each institution is fundamentally not student-oriented. For-profit institutions including University of Phoenix, DeVry University, and the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges are notable examples of morally dubious schools; such colleges often attract students (typically low-income students and veterans) with predatory and aggressive recruitment tactics and misleading, downright false statements about that particular institution’s job placement success. Essentially, for-profit institutions use commercial-like propaganda to take students’ money; students are just a source of revenue and their dreams and goals could not matter less to these universities.

Regardless of Trump administration education policy, our country’s education system leaves much to be desired. We considerably over-test public school students, somehow expecting that holding them all to rigorous common core standards will magically erase the realities of poverty and racism. An emphasis on testing and results is not a good measure of learning because high test scores are typically reflective of affluence, not quality teaching. Instead, we would be wise to look at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s education initiatives within his sprawling network of Great Society/War on Poverty reforms when thinking about future education policy. LBJ’s Head Start and Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) represented significant steps in the right direction on education.

Head Start, still in action today, provides social services for parents and preschools for low-income and foster children. While participation in the program doesn’t make for a notable increase in standardized test scores, the program is extremely successful in terms of increasing high school graduation rates and reducing the likelihood of a participant relying on welfare in their adult life. This excellent approach to education is much more holistic; instead of being reduced to a standardized test score, students are treated like real human beings.

ESEA was critical in providing resources and support for underprivileged students. Within the ESEA, Title I set aside funding for school districts with high percentages of poor children while Titles II and III instituted hefty investments in order to provide mobile libraries, textbooks, and other education services to students. However, school administrators were allowed too much flexibility in fund allocation, often using funds intended for poor students in their general budget. But while such programs weren’t always perfect and could certainly be improved and revitalized, the general logic behind LBJ-era education programs remains sound; reducing poverty through investments in public education is an immensely admirable goal and needs to be relentlessly pursued.

The history is clear. Connecting education to the free market or imposing high testing standards on public school students aren’t effective means of solving education issues. If we truly want education to be a right and not a privilege, we must support government programs that actually provide resources and a pathway to success for underprivileged students. In the words of the inimitable LBJ, “Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance.”