Do you have an eight-year-old child? Is your son or daughter currently being educated by a teacher, in a school? If so, you are a failure as a parent, and as an American. You need to quit your job (or if you are a man, tell your wife to quit her job) and teach your child at home. By “teach,” I mean have your child read a lot of books and watch YouTube videos on his or her own. So says Ron Paul in his new book, The School Revolution.
Eleven years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work on education. The liberal think tank that hired me focused on state issues, so I had nothing to do with the project that was consuming D.C. wonks at the time: a once-a-decade reauthorization of the mammoth federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would become the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Many public universities are suffering these days, wracked by budget cuts and struggling to bring enough students through the door. The University of Virginia isn’t one of them. A $5 billion endowment makes it the wealthiest public university, per capita, in the United States. Over 28,000 students applied for admission last year, a record high. The stately campus, a classic of red brick and white colonnade, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Convention requires presidential candidates to issue policy statements on all major policy areas. So while Mitt Romney’s election strategy centers on exploiting the weak economy, on Wednesday he checked the “education” box. But while the candidate’s mind may be focused on other things, Romney’s speech, and the corresponding white paper, deserve attention. Romney chose to frame his education agenda as a critique of President Obama and teachers unions, but it’s actually something much more interesting: an extended argument with George W. Bush.
By the time the police arrived with the pepper spray, sending throngs of college students choking to the ground, it was clear that Santa Monica College’s plan to raise tuition had gone badly awry. Days earlier, the trustees of the 31,000-student community college had announced a novel strategy for dealing with the state of California’s latest round of punishing budget cuts. It would open up new sections of perpetually over-subscribed courses like English and Math—but only to students willing to pay four times the standard price.
In the last years of the nineteenth century, Charles Dow created an index of 12 leading industrial companies. Almost none of them exist today. While General Electric remains an industrial giant, the U.S. Leather Company, American Cotton Oil, and others have long since disappeared into bankruptcy or consolidation. Today, the Dow Jones includes giant corporations that hadn’t even been created when Ronald Reagan first sat in the Oval Office.
On Tuesday night this past week, alarm bells suddenly began ringing at 1 Dupont Circle, the Washington, DC headquarters of the powerful higher education lobby. The trigger was the surprise ultimatum that President Obama leveled in his State of the Union address. “We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition,” he said. “We’ll run out of money.” States needed to stop slashing college budgets, he noted, but colleges also had work to do.
Over the last three decades, through good economic times and bad, one of the few constants in American life has been the relentless rise in the price of higher education. The numbers are stark: According to the non-profit College Board, public four-year universities raised tuition and fees by 8.3 percent this year, more than double the rate of inflation. This was typical: Over the last decade, public university tuition grew by an average of 5.6 percent above inflation every year. And the problem is also getting worse: In the 1990s, the annual real increase was 3.2 percent.
On July 30, 2011, thousands of public school teachers rallied on the southwest corner of the Ellipse, near the White House. Union members mingled with the occasional communist pamphleteer, and, on a temporary stage, a series of activists, students, scholars, and teachers put forward variations on a theme: Standardized tests and corporate interests are ruining public education. Late in the program, the actor Matt Damon showed up and began chatting amiably with an older, gray-haired woman sitting next to him on the stage. It turned out he wasn’t the only star in attendance.
Like global warming, the growth of online higher education is the kind of trend whose steady progress will ultimately change the world. Just take a look at the latest numbers: The annual Sloan Consortium report on online education in the United States was released last week, finding that 6.1 million American college students took at least one online course in Fall 2010 (that’s a half million more than 2009) and that nearly one-third of all college students are learning online now (up from less than 10 percent in 2002).