Make the Investment
By Stephen Tuttle | Oct. 5, 2019
Democratic presidential candidates touting universal pre-kindergarten and free tuition to state colleges and universities might be on to something. Now, if we could just get the politicians and bureaucrats to be equally interested in K–12 public education.
Funding for public schools took savage hits during and after the Great Recession. As one of the biggest chunks of spending in every budget, it became a ripe target for the budget-cutters in state after state. Most are still trying to catch up; a dozen states are still funding schools below 2008 levels, and the rest are lagging behind inflation.
The Michigan legislature recently passed a budget with much fanfare and self-congratulations. It included $15.2 billion for public education, including per pupil funding increases of $120 to $250. It's a tiny step in the right direction but is 25 percent below funding of 15 years ago when you account for inflation. And they still haven't truly equalized funding.
They bragged it was a bipartisan effort, so both parties share the blame.
It doesn't help one bit our current Secretary of Education, Michigan's own Betsy DeVos, has been about as helpful to public schools as a chainsaw is to a forest. She's tried to cut spending for special education, preschool, and after-school programs, as well as meal subsidies. At the same time, she's touted more spending for charter schools and vouchers. She's especially fond of a program in Milwaukee that uses taxpayer money to send kids to private schools, including parochial schools.
Our approach to public higher education has been equally troubling.
Back in the early 1980s, then President Ronald Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, decided higher education was a privilege that need not be so subsidized by the federal government. The administration made significant cuts. That was the beginning of the endless tuition increases and mounting student debt.
Both continue unabated: Tuitions at public universities and colleges increased 64 percent in the last 12 years, and tuition is just part of the cost. Room and board, meal plans, and a blizzard of fees can double costs. Student debt now exceeds $1.5 trillion
Even efforts to relieve some of that debt have been met with resistance from Devos' Department of Education (DOE). There is a program created to give loan forgiveness to graduates who have worked in public service jobs, like teaching or nursing, for at least a decade. Do a needed job for the community; we'll help you out. Nearly 80,000 people have applied — 99 percent have been denied. DeVos doesn't even support loan forgiveness for students who attended schools now closed, at least in part, because of their predatory loan practices.
We've also been told, ad nauseum, that a higher education is critical. College, trade school, or technical school are musts. And there's plenty of research to back it up. People with educations beyond high school live longer, are less likely to be crime victims — they live in nicer neighborhoods — and over their lifetime can earn at least $1 million more than those without post-high school education. (Unions still have apprentice programs that actually pay you while you learn an essential trade, but nobody talks about that.)
So, we're told the very beginning of education and the end are critical to learning and life success. If that's the case, why aren't both part of our free public education?
If pre-K is essential, then it can't just be for those who can afford it. That sounds very much like the place that educational inequality based solely on economic inequality begins. That's a problem that can be fixed with free, universal pre-K as part of public school systems.
The same holds true for higher education. If we absolutely, positively must have it, as we're told, then why are we forcing those students into strangling debt? As currently constructed, it is a remarkably shortsighted system. Public colleges and universities should be part of the free public-school system, too.
Eliminating tuition costs isn't impossible. The New York University medical school recently eliminated tuition. The state of New Mexico will start offering free tuition to in-state students attending public colleges or universities once those students have exhausted state, federal and scholarship aid.
So, how much?
Free universal pre-K would cost $25–$30 billion annually, and free tuition would be closer to $80 billion, according to the DOE, which supports neither.
It is a great deal of money but represents less than 2.5 percent of the $4.4 trillion federal budget. Simply closing many of the more extravagant tax loopholes would easily pay for both.
Politicians claim they'll do anything to assure every child gets a fair educational opportunity. Most are fibbing. We reserve the best education for those who can afford it at the entry level and for those willing to accumulate huge debt at the other end.
If both are critical, we should all make the investment.