Raising the Quality and Lowering the Cost of Education

Millennials (young Americans born 1982-2003) rate the quality of education and the cost of college near the top of the list of issues about which they are most concerned, just behind jobs and the economy. This week, President Barack Obama responded to those concerns with the release of his plan to fix the No Child Left Behind Law and focus the federal government's efforts even more on ensuring school's deliver the results and outcomes that Millennials and their parents expect from America's institutions.  The announcement capped a remarkable series of events that saw  Democrats joining  parents and educators across  the country in taking important steps to address  those educational needs,  providing Millennials new hope that their investments in politics and civic engagement will finally pay off.

NDN's newest survey research indicates that Millennials, unlike all other generations, rate education generally, and the cost of a college education specifically, as two of the top four critical problems  they believe government must address and fix.   Clearly, Millennials, like older generations, see a need to improve public education in America. And, in fact, Millennials perceive this need from a very personal perspective. While the Millennial Generation is  slightly more positive about the overall quality of education in the United States (41% positive/50% negative) than older generations (32%/62%), they give significantly lower grades to the education they have personally received than older generations.  Seventy percent of Millennials believe that the poor quality of public education stems from a  lack of money and the way schools  are managed and organized. Unlike the majority of older generations, Millennials are about evenly split on whether or not unions and work rules are a major problem in our system of public education. In response to attitudes like these, an  increasing number of urban school districts are beginning to abandon the strategy  of incremental reform and adopting more radical and dramatic changes to address the concerns of Millennials  and their  parents.

In Rhode Island, the Central Falls school board fired all the teachers, the principle and the administrators in an underperforming high school where half the 800 students were failing every subject and only seven percent were proficient in math. Unable to reach agreement with the teachers on how to pay for the changes needed to break this cycle of mediocrity, the board invoked the "turnaround option" sanctioned by the Obama administration's school reform initiative, which allows school boards to start over at failing schools with a brand new set of teachers and administrators. Given the President's unwavering support for systemic reform of schools that fail to educate children embodied in his Race to the Top initiative, the White House's support of the school board's actions should not have come as a surprise to those still trying to protect the status quo.

In Kansas City, Missouri the school board, that  previously had stood in the vanguard of those believing primarily in racial integration and increased per pupil spending as the solution to the problems of education in urban environments, decided to try a completely different approach. Less than third of Kansas City  elementary school students are now reading at or above grade level and no more than a quarter of most of their schools' students  have achieved the levels of proficiency required for   the skills they will need in life. Faced with these results, and the prospect of running out of money by next year, the board voted to close about half of the district's  schools in order to "dramatically enhance education for each of our students by combining our very best teachers and very best resources in fewer schools," as Kansas City's School Superintendent put it.

But perhaps the most dramatic news of the week came from Detroit where a coalition of nonprofit organizations, Excellent Schools Detroit, announced its plan to replace Detroit's failing public schools with 70 new ones and make a $200-million  investment over the next ten years in order to achieve its  goal of graduating 90% of Detroit kids from high school by 2020 and having 90% of graduates go on to college.  Currently, about 58% of students in Detroit's school system and 78% of those enrolled in charter schools in the city graduate from high school, while fewer than 25% enroll in college.

The plan includes a push for mayoral control of Detroit Public Schools, but more importantly the establishment of an independent commission to grade every school in the city, including charters, every year against a uniform set of standards and outcomes focused on achieving educational excellence. The new Standards and Accountability Commission will establish a competitive public education marketplace complete with report cards grading each school's progress against an agreed upon set of standards that will enable parents to become smart shoppers for their child's education. The commission will also  suggest closures in order to weed out failing schools, half of which, under the plan, would be closed or replaced with schools under new management by 2015. Like the Kansas City solution, the plan does not rely on increased funding from the state but rather the commitment of Detroiters to the future of their children. The idea was greeted with cheers from everyone except the members of the current school board.  

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. Senate, a flurry of phone calls and emails from Millennials across the nation, convinced a majority of Democratic Senators to join in an effort to rescue Pell grants for students attending college from dramatic cuts that would have reduced payments by 60% for eight million students and eliminated the money altogether for another half a million. The House had already passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which would reform the student loan program by eliminating the current subsidies to private lenders who make student loans guaranteed by the federal government and invest the money saved in increasing the size and availability of Pell Grants. But six Democratic Senators, who should know better, had argued that the nation couldn't afford to continue to make these investments in its future and should instead continue to underwrite the bank's profits, even as students on campuses across the nation demonstrated to protest increases in tuition at cash strapped state universities.

 Since Republicans were united in defending the interests of banks over Millennials, the only way to enact President Obama's student aid reform proposal was to include the concept in the budget reconciliation package, central to efforts to finally pass health care reform, which  only requires a simple majority in the Senate for passage. After hearing from their House colleagues on the political benefits and policy importance of the concept, even budget hawks like North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad,  chairman of the Budget Committee, agreed to find a way to bundle the two items by adjusting the education portion  to account for a revised Congressional Budget Office cost analysis. The principle driver of the increased costs of the program is the popularity of this type of college financial aid among Millennials struggling to stay out of debt and still get the education they need to get a good paying job. By combining ways to reduce the cost of college with a major expansion of health care in the reconciliation package,   Democrats  have taken a major step forward in solidifying the support of all elements of the Democratic Party's  21st Century majority coalition-from young voters to minorities.

This new coalition presents the best opportunity for Democrats to solidify a dominant majority coalition since FDR and the New Deal. But key members of the coalition, especially Millennials, are currently not convinced that voting in 2010 will make much of a difference, given the results they have seen from Congress in the first year of the Obama administration in the election of which they played such a significant role.  But these recent events   suggest the country is finally beginning to listen to the voice of this new generation and address its concerns. As educators and parents at the grass roots of this revolution begin to have an  impact in cities across the nation, the best thing that Democrats in Congress could do before this week  is out is pass both health care and student aid reform as part of their budget reconciliation process. Doing so would finally begin to align the nation's budgetary priorities with its future and bring hope for Millennials that changes they can  believe in will continue to flow from their investment in the country's political process.