Where Does Responsibility Begin for Our Children’s Futures…
May 6, 2021
Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) stated on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, May 2, 2021 that it was not “typically” the responsibility of the federal government to provide pre-kindergarten or community college access to Americans, and visions of kicking the can down the road arose in my head. He went on to talk about the small percentage of public education (6-7% in his estimate) that the federal government pays for. The bulk of public education costs are, indeed, shouldered by states and local taxing agencies. This accounts for the huge inequities seen in school districts across the county. And Portman, who talked about “incentives” for these pre-K and community college issues, he was not about to endorse the Biden administration’s plan for universal funding for pre-K or for two years of community college, adding that the bill should focus more on skills and trade schools, rather than college.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, just about everything. First of all, Senator Portman does get it right in terms of the federal government not paying for much of public education. But that does not exempt it from taking on responsibility for where there are major gaps and for where the federal government could make a huge difference for those who have been left behind by the current state and local systems that are rife with systemic racism and inequality. The majority of the students that would benefit from the proposed universal pre-K and from 2 years of free community college are Black, Brown, Indigenous – people of color – who right now, cannot afford to access these systems and for whom these systems may not even exist in their communities. Senator Portman’s response about skills and trade schools is also a clear microaggression. His statement targets those who would take advantage of community college as a steppingstone to a four-year degree as not really being capable of that kind of achievement. Senator Portman is not fooling anyone.
Looking at the real picture of these two ends of the education spectrum, there are issues that will need to be addressed in the Biden plans to make them workable and viable for all. Universal Pre-K is not a new concept. It has been around and been implemented in different states and in different formats as early as 1998 when Oklahoma began it for 4-year-olds. While the program continues today, with positive results for children with various economic and racial backgrounds, many of the state’s most vulnerable children are not enrolled. These programs are needed and desired, according to the Economic Policy Institute especially when there is help with funding them. Public funding of pre-K programs could save parents up to $20,000 per year, depending on where they live.
“Early care and education is very expensive… A good preschool can cost as much as a state university or a community college,” said Judy Temple, an expert on early childhood policy at the University of Minnesota. But despite the costs, 84% of Americans support free universal preschool for 3 and 4 year-olds according to a poll released earlier this year by the First Five Years Fund. To cover the costs for these programs, more than 80% of Americans backed using tax credits for childcare, federal funds to improve facilities, and offering better salaries to early childhood educators.
While there are arguments on both sides about the benefits and the detriments of universal pre-K, the issue at this time is that there is no one program that is the “right” one that everyone should replicate. Different programs implemented in different cities and states have garnered different results. Most have seen positives in enhancing school readiness and allowing women to return to the workforce. “If we provide high-quality education, our improvements in kids’ long-term learning and development—cognitive, social, emotional and even physical—that has long-term payoffs in terms of people who are healthier, happier, and more productive,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. It is that issue of a lack of high quality and consistency that comes to the forefront in a recent report from the Manhattan Institute highlighting the negative side of universal Pre-K. This report points to negative consequences in children such as hyperactivity, anxiety and aggression. But it is countered by Barnett who points to the need to maintain quality standards, provide educators with resources, and learn from the programs that have worked well as well as those that have not.
When we move to the other end of the education spectrum – to providing students with two years of free community college – we find that we have issues to contend with there as well. Most community colleges provide excellent education and offer students associate degrees as well as prepare them to transfer to a 4-year institution after completing a 2-year degree. But while 80% plan to transfer, only 40% of those who say that was their intent actually do so. A full 60% of students that intend to transfer to a four-year degree institution do not. But this is not because they fear they will fail. The data show that community college transfer students enter 4-year colleges better prepared and their graduation rates in these institutions (even in highly selective institutions) are equal to or higher than students that enter from high school or transfer from another four-year institutions. So, the issues that are blocking transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions are not those of the academic capability of these students.
The causes of this enormous gap between those who say they wish to matriculate further and those who actually do, fall into a number of buckets, all of which should be addressed if the federal government moves forward with subsidies for two years of community college. Writing in the December 9, 2020 issue of the Community College Review, Kate Barrington noted the issues that get in the way of community college students making the transition to four-year institution. Included in her list of seven primary issues are: 1) Difficulty obtaining prerequisite courses due to competition to get into these popular and in-demand classes; 2) Tuition costs for four-year institutions are going up, even state colleges and universities that make them out of reach for many students. Some students have taken on federal financial aid for community college and cannot assume more debt for this next step; 3) Transfer requirements are confusing and non-standardized and so often credits are lost, and courses may need to be repeated after a student is accepted. Requirements may differ from state to state; 4) Some students are unprepared for the more rigorous college curriculum and will need remedial courses. But, as noted before, this is not necessarily the case for all community college transfer students; 5) Some students may not be able to attend school full-time due to financial of family obligations. This can drag things out and makes flexibility in choosing a four-year institution key; 6) Transferring schools may require significant life changes for students who have been going to local community colleges and living at home. Preparing for these kinds of challenges should be given consideration; 7) Some students are concerned that they are entering at a disadvantage because they did not start when many of their colleagues did, especially if they are in a competitive degree field.
In addition to the above, Barrington points out that many community colleges just do not advise their students properly on what is needed to transfer. If the federal government is going to support free two-year community college tuition, it should pay attention to the need to beef up the counseling systems at the community colleges so that students receive advice early and often as to what their career and education options are so that they don’t waste time and money on courses that won’t apply to the 2-year degrees they seek, or that will not transfer to a 4-year institution. Community colleges building partnerships with 4-year institutions also makes a lot of sense if this initiative is to succeed.
So perhaps Senator Portman’s push back at these two education initiatives as being not in the federal government’s wheelhouse is based on his fear of just how much work and funding it will take to pull them off. If that is the case, he is not wrong. But if we wait for others to step up, chances are, it will never happen. Providing incentives, as Portman suggests, will not get us to the finish line when it comes to education. It will take a great deal of hard work, both at the early childhood/Pre-K end of the spectrum, as well as at the community college end, to ensure that those who most need these programs get them and get quality along with equity. It will take people like Senator Portman recognizing that it is unacceptable to leave BIPOC people behind while those with privilege progress in the current Pre-K programs and those whose wealth and positions of power assure their children slots in colleges and universities. To get there we need to call out the racism, microaggression and white supremacy that is preventing these important changes to move forward. We need to stand up for all of our children and their educational opportunities and ensure that all families have the same options and choices when it comes to their children’s’ futures. Anything less is unacceptable.