President Obama and Education Reform: High Hopes, Low Results

Since the country has been riven by several reports on growing economic inequality, President Obama has been keen to promote accretive legislation securing a social safety net. Among his priorities is the affordability and accessibility of quality education across the nation. Yet, the contretemps over the president’s plans to ensure equal access to higher and quality education – a free two years of community college and various school improvement grants – is that the plans either a) fall into desuetude, b) produce paltry results, or c) end up benefitting the upper class (higher- or middle-) more than the lower class. Consequences that each respectively misuse tax dollars.

Take the President’s most recent proposal to provide two years of free community college, for example. In his State of the Union address, President Obama crystallized the proposal by hoping “college [will become] as free and universal in America as high school is today.” It can be said, then, that President Obama’s interests lie in the maturation of norms: “to make two years of college the norm,” in the words of Cecilia Munoz, director of domestic policy in the White House, “the way high school is the norm.”[1] In theory, this is powerful. But for lower-income students, this does not make much of a difference with respect to already existing Pell Grants. And for all taxpayers alike, this theory only wafts through the country as a hopeful investment in incremental change with little to no immediacy (or result, for that matter).

The proposition is already facing criticism from both the left and the right, with arguments emphasizing the plan’s neutrality in serving the lower class and the plan’s callous government spending. Many of these critiques cite the President’s previous plans to progress education via passé school improvement grants, in which only marginal success has been recorded alongside multi-billion dollar investments. Or President Obama’s wavering commitment to the 529 College Savings Plan, which admittedly offers tax breaks and incentive to the lower-class but disproportionately favors higher-income citizens with the same (or higher) tax breaks. This disparity did not go unnoticed and eventually led President Obama to propose a provision on the 529 Savings Plan prepared to eliminate tax breaks on higher-income households – with the exception of those holding accounts grandfathered in – and in turn, expand the American Opportunity Tax Credit: pledging as much as $2,500 per student for higher-education.

However, the provision faced an uproar from both middle- and higher- income families alongside a Republican Congress that criticized the proposal; House Speaker John Boehner characterized it as  “another example of his outdated, top-down approach, when our focus ought to be on providing opportunity for all Americans.” All of this eventually inspired the White House to withdraw its suggestion. Without the provision and the alternative sources for funding, however, the idea of a free two years of community college falls even shorter as it relies on a property not easily agreed upon: tax increases.

President Obama’s ambitious plans to offer free community college, paid leave for workers, childcare and retirement savings, and more government aid for education are generally financed by a $320 billion tax increase over the next decade. Providing free community college, in and of itself, costs roughly $60 billion. The gnawing question then becomes: is the $60 billion of tax dollars going towards responsible legislation or will hard working Americans be funding yet another failed government initiative? Analyst Stuart Butler of Brookings not only argues that the plan, again, disproportionately favors middle- and higher- income students who do not necessarily need the help while neglecting lower-income students crippled by the more informal costs of education (books, supplies, and transportation), but that it also, unintentionally exacerbates the “undermatching” problem, in which over-qualified students settle for community college to save money. Several other analysts agree, concerned with similarly unintended consequences of hierarchical education: trapping lower-income families in the community college experience and even giving them incentive to do so. Is a tax increase really worth it then – if it does not necessarily change the order of things or confront the deeper problems buried beneath America’s education system?

Surely, the President’s proposals are sewn with good intention. Yet the appeal of stagnancy and/or incremental change can only go so far when the ideas thrive off of tax dollars. It seems the President’s plans are increasingly hopeful and decreasingly effective – often giving the very people it intends to assist the shorter end of the stick. Expanding access to quality- and higher- education is no easy task, but that places all the more weight in responsibly whetting legislation. Particularly when a GOP-led Congress is highly likely to reject a budget characterized by tax increases with few reliable outcomes.