What Would a Sanders Administration Do on K-12 Education?

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 16, 2015.
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P
residential candidate Bernie Sanders has excited his base with some bold ideas surrounding higher education. He’s said college should be a right, that public universities should have free tuition, and that public universities should employ tenured or tenure-track faculty for at least 75 percent of instruction, as a way to reduce the growing dependence on cheap adjunct labor. But Sanders’ stances on K-12 issues—arguably more contentious topics for politicians to engage with compared to higher ed and universal pre-K—have garnered far less attention.

Here’s what we know so far:

1. He wants to roll back standardized testing, but still supports Common Core.

Sanders opposes the expansion of standardized testing we’ve seen through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); he argues that such tests narrow school curriculum and hurt student creativity and critical thinking. However, this past March he voted against an amendment that would have allowed states to opt-out of the Common Core standards without a federal penalty. The amendment also would have barred the federal government from “mandating, incentivizing, or coercing” states into adopting the standards.

2.  He supports expanding the school day and year.

Sanders is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and in 2011, he worked to raise support for expanding the school day and year. Citing research on “summer learning loss”—Sanders notes that low-income students stand to lose much of what they learn if they’re denied extra-curricular enrichment opportunities. He also secured more funding for after-school and summer learning opportunities in Vermont.

3. He wants to see teachers paid more, and is a defender of pensions.

Sanders believes all educators, from early childhood workers up to college instructors should be paid more. He said, “Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers. We have to get our priorities right.” And while he believes the public pension crisis “must be addressed” he is more interested in reigning in Wall Street to solve it than reducing retiree payments.

4. He opposes Big Money in politics, but has not taken a clear position on the role of Big Money in education.

Sanders has come out strongly against oil companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and other special interests that pour money into politics. Citing these groups as a threat to true democracy—he wants to overturn Citizens United and push for publicly funded elections.

However, whether he will bring the same critical rhetoric to the foundations, consultants, and hedge fund managers shaping education policy remains to be seen. As Anthony Cody, the co-founder of Network for Public Ed pointed out recently, Sanders has yet to speak very clearly on these issues, but his opposition to Big Money elsewhere leads one to think that it’s at least a reasonable possibility.

5. He wants to strengthen who can be considered a “highly qualified” teacher.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education honored Sanders in 2012 for his “outstanding support” for educator preparation programs. In 2011 he introduced the Assuring Successful Students through Effective Teaching Act, which would aim to strengthen the definition of what a “highly qualified” teacher is considered to be, and work to reduce the number of unqualified teachers working in needy schools.

6. He has an unclear position on charter schools, but opposes vouchers.

He voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998, but has not engaged much in the polarized charter debate since. Vermont is one of the few states that do not permit charter schools, in part because the Vermont public education system already allows for “school choice” in other ways. However, Sanders is a strong supporter of teacher unions and collective bargaining, so if he does come to back charters, his support is unlikely to be paired with the type of anti-union rhetoric common in the charter advocacy world.

He also opposes private school vouchers, favoring an expanded federal investment in public schools instead.

So we have some insights, but questions remain. Ultimately if Bernie Sanders wants to win over progressive liberals and campaign as a left alternative to Hillary Clinton, he’ll have to start speaking more explicitly about K-12 education in the coming months.

The Conversation About Hopkins Tuition Is Long Overdue

Originally published in The JHU Politik on February 24th, 2014.
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Johns Hopkins undergraduate tuition has risen from $37,700 in the 2008-2009 academic year to $45,470 in 2013-2014. This steep increase is one that continues to grow, virtually unquestioned by the student body, and with no end in sight.

Hopkins has defended the rising price, saying that tuition increased each year at only an average annual rate of 3.8%, compared to an average annual rate of 5.6% in the five years prior. But still, it’s well worth asking, what is this money for?

This past month, the Delta Costa Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan social-science organization came out with a new report on costs in higher education. The report, “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education“, concluded that between 2000-2012, expansion in wages and salaries in higher education came not from instruction or academic support but from student services, including athletics, admissions, psychological counseling and career services.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it, “just as a cable company bundles channels together and makes you pay for them all, whether or not you watch them, colleges have bundled counseling, athletics, campus activities, and other services with the instructional side to justify charging more.”

Hopkins and other universities have rationalized their expansion of student services by pointing to external regulations as well as pressure from students, parents and policymakers. Indeed issues like sexual assault and campus mental health have received substantial news coverage recently. And there are some new positions, like the Director of LGBTQ life on campus, which were enthusiastically met with widespread approval.

However, there is more to the story.

JHU Political Science professor, Ben Ginsberg, has written a book entitled “The Fall of the Faculty” which delves into what he observes as severe bureaucratic bloat in higher education. He sees our nation’s burgeoning administrative sector driving up the cost of education with little verifiable value in return. He contends that the growth of the administration has resulted in a shift of power away from the faculty.

“In the old days, if the President of the University lost the faith of the faculty he couldn’t do his job,” said Ginsberg in an interview. “Now he circumvents that and the president has become relatively autonomous. It’s presidential imperialism.”

As Ginsberg argues in The Washington Monthly, “Universities are now filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.”

We go to a private research university, so the rising costs of our education carry different political significance than that of state institutions, which are also seeing increases in price. And yet, it’s a mistake to think that somehow negates the difficult impact of these costs.

Notably, the financial aid budget has increased under President Daniels’ administration, with grant aid for Homewood undergraduates increasing from $50 million in 2008-09 to just under $75 million in 2013-14. According to Director of Media Relations, Tracey Reeves, more than 40% of Homewood undergraduates receive assistance to offset the cost of attending Johns Hopkins.

Nevertheless, while expanding the amount of assistance is surely good, with an ever-increasing cost of attendance, at some point it just becomes impossible for many students who might have otherwise been able to attend. Then at that point, our students, faculty and administrators have to ask themselves if the administrative growth and the expansion of student services is worth it at the expense of making the cost of attendance too expensive for many otherwise qualified students to afford.

Perhaps there could be alternative models for degree seeking students, for those who want to come and get a Johns Hopkins education but do not want or cannot afford to pay for the sectors of the University that they will never plan to utilize, like student activities, Greek life and athletics.

Or perhaps the status quo, with hopes that financial aid can adequately meliorate the burden, is the best solution given the difficulties of implementing any alternative system. There aren’t easy answers to these questions.

The point is, however, that our school has never really had the opportunity to openly discuss and debate these issues and explore the larger consequences of these growing economic trends.

 This must change; none of these choices are, or should be mistaken as, inevitable.