Free Community College: A Hail Mary Pass?

There are plenty of unaddressed details around this proposal: where does the estimated $60B in federal funds come from? How are states going to pay their 25 percent share?
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In his December year-end press conference, President Obama termed this part of his presidency 'the 4th quarter' and added "interesting things happen in the 4th quarter." The President has proposed free community college (75 percent paid for by federal government and 25 percent by states) for students who maintain C+ grades AND make consistent progress towards graduation. "Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it," said Obama. "It's not a blank check, not a free lunch, but for those willing to do the can be a game changer."

There are plenty of unaddressed details around this proposal: where does the estimated $60B in federal funds come from? How are states going to pay their 25 percent share? Why do we think more under-represented students will enroll, and persist in college when tuition is only a portion of the cost of a college education? And yet, I welcome the boldness of the proposal. Could we use this to launch a meaningful policy-centric discourse around the factors that currently impede or prevent students who want to attend college from pursuing this path? How do we know that high school is truly preparing students for college? And, what are community and 4-year colleges doing to ensure students and their families that their undergraduate programs are relevant to employers?

If we wait for consensus on these big and important questions we will be stuck with the status quo: a nation with an under-educated workforce that offers few paths to decent paying jobs, especially for disproportionately large segments of our population.

We can hope that meaningful education reform initiatives for the remainder of Obama's presidency find traction in Washington. But if history is any indicator, I fear the repercussions of the partisan battle over the heart and mind of the country for the balance of this administration.

It seems obvious, but one of the ways we can improve education is for political leaders on both sides of the aisle (national, state and local) to work together to get things done. Michael J. Petrilli of the Fordham Institute wrote recently, about the proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA): "The country is yearning, praying, hoping for some sign that our political leaders can get their acts together and get something done, something constructive that will solve real problems and move the country forward again." I agree.

The last time Congress reauthorized the ESEA, we got the deeply flawed No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Last week, during a speech on the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the ESEA, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for scrapping the No Child Left Behind law and replacing it with a version that not only prepares children for college and careers, but also delivers on the ESEA's promise of equity and real opportunity for every child -- including minority students, students with disabilities, low-income students and English learners. "The focus must change from punishing students, schools, and educators to keeping ESEA's original promise of equity, fairness and helping those most in need," said Duncan.

I agree that we need to re-think the way we approach assessing teacher performance, just as I think we need to carefully consider whether annual standardized tests measure student growth or college readiness. Can our elected officials on both sides of the aisle, along with the executive branch, actually engage in enacting and funding constructive policies? It's equally important to create local conditions in school districts everywhere that encourage teachers and administrators to measure their student learning efforts so that they engage in meaningful continuous improvement.

Free community college is one play, and it's too early to know whether this is a Hail Mary pass with time on the clock expired or the launch to a 4th quarter come-from-behind victory. The winners and losers are our children and our country's future competitive viability. Let's all work to acknowledge our differences, find common ground and move education innovation forward. It's time to make good on a 50-year-old promise to prepare all students for success in college and career.

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