The GOP’s School Daze

Ideas have consequences. Perhaps the most important advice for students as they enter college this fall is to take ideas seriously. For proof, they need only to look at their own pocketbooks as their families struggle to pay for their college costs. Ideas-specifically, conservative ideas-put into practice are pricing college out of the reach of more and more working families.

The facts are not in dispute. Faced with rising costs and tight budgets, states across the country are cutting back on support for public universities and colleges. Colleges pass the costs onto students-tuitions are up an average of 40 percent since George W. Bush took office in 2000. College aid hasn’t kept up. The president has broken his campaign pledge to increase the size of Pell Grants, the basic federal scholarship program. More and more students are forced to go into debt to pay for college. Graduates of four-year schools this year will be burdened by an average of $23,600 in student loans and $2,000 in credit card debt. Yet, the conservative majority in Congress voted to cut $12 billion out of the student loan program this year, even as Congress hiked interest rates on college loans to students and parents. Costs are going up, even as hundreds of thousands of students are forced to forego college or drop out because they cannot afford the education that they need and have earned.

Conservatives-who dominate all branches of the federal government and many of the states-have contributed directly to this reality. They champion ‘smaller government and lower taxes.’ Tax cuts-which primarily reward the wealthy-lower revenue and force cuts in government. But conservatives believe in a strong military, won’t dare touch entrenched corporate welfare programs that waste billions and can’t take on popular retirement programs like Medicare and Social Security. So the spending cuts come from domestic programs that benefit working and poor Americans-in education, the environment, child care, housing, schools or transportation.

Consider the fight over the FY2006 federal budget. Faced with record deficits-largely a result of tax cuts and rising military expenditures-conservatives called for more tax breaks for the very wealthy, including eliminating the estate tax that comes from the richest 8,000 families in America. At the same time they pushed cuts in domestic spending, with the largest single chunk being $12 billion slashed from the student loan program even as interest rates were hiked on college loans for parents or students.

Conservatives also champion privatization-arguing that markets work better than public programs. Their principles in this regard are fortified by their interests-as corporate lobbies lavish support on those legislators who defend their privileges. The current conservative majority-under the leadership of now disgraced Majority Leader Tom DeLay-drove the corruptions of pay-to-play politics to obscene levels. In the student loan program, this costs the country and students billions every year. The Clinton administration demonstrated that if the federal government provided loans directly to students, it could save more than $7 for every $100 loaned out, money that now goes to private banks that provide loans to students while enjoying a federal guarantee against default.

Banks mobilized against the threat of a rational public loan program, spending millions on lobbyists and campaign contributions. Educational lending institutions have contributed $3.5 million to legislators since the 2004 election, with more than 75 percent going to the Republican majority. More than $600,000 alone went to two men-Rep. John Boehner, the chair of the House education subcommittee and his successor, Rep. Buck McKeon. When student loan reauthorization came last year, Boehner, now the Republican House Majority leader, met with the Consumer Bankers Association and told them to ‘relax, stay calm, know that I have all of you in my two trusted hands.’ Not surprisingly, direct public funding went nowhere, the banks’ position was protected, and interest rates were hiked on parents and students.

Ideas have consequences. America, which prospered while leading the world in public education, now is falling behind.

Other advanced nations are pouring resources into providing the next generation with the education so vital to their futures. America no longer leads the world in providing higher education to its citizens. It ranks 13th in college affordability and 4th in accessibility among industrial countries.

The conservative mantra-lower taxes, smaller government, strong military, free markets-is poll-tested to appeal. But in translation the reality of that mantra brings us tax breaks for the wealthy, soaring college costs for the rest of us, and a crony capitalism that lavishes public benefit on corporate lobbies. The conservative ideology is now depriving thousands of students of the college education that they have earned, and weakening this country by serving a privileged class of corporate cronies. Meanwhile, we’re failing to invest in the education of the next generation so vital for citizens in a modern democracy and for workers in a global economy.

[Robert L. Borosage is co-director of the Campaign For America's Future.]

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