Schooled Reporting on education

Parents united

Education | Support for school choice, worry about student debt cross party lines
by Laura Edghill
Posted 7/24/19, 05:29 pm

Parents across the political spectrum agree that student debt and school choice are the two most pressing concerns about their children’s education, according to a new survey from K12, a provider of educational programs for individuals, families, and schools.

“The U.S. education system has been home to some of the fiercest political fights this century, but when it comes to their own kids, parents speak with a unified voice,” said Shaun McAlmont, president of career readiness education at K12. “They want options, they want innovation, and they want their kids to be able to move into college or a career without a lifetime of crushing student debt.”

A majority of Democrats (52 percent) and Republicans (56 percent) surveyed agreed it was very important to have multiple school choices for their children. Yet in Washington, Democratic lawmakers often push back on Republican school choice initiatives.

Earlier this week, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who voted with Democrats, commented on the disconnect between Main Street and Capitol Hill on the issue of school choice. “Sadly, my suspicion is that it has something to do with securing the backing of teachers’ unions, which are fervently against giving parents the choice of taking their children out of public schools that they believe are not educating their kids,” Lieberman wrote in a column for Fox News.

The overwhelming majority of parents (83 percent) also agreed that student debt was a serious or very serious problem, while a whopping 92 percent said that giving high school students more exposure to career opportunities and experiences before they enter college would help alleviate the problem.

“A staggering number of job openings are going unfilled right now in career fields that are critical to the economy and can support a family,” McAlmont said. “And yet we still have a K-12 education system that pushes kids into debt-filled futures without nearly enough guidance and exposure to those opportunities.”

Many of those critical jobs are in the middle-skills arena—jobs that require some education beyond high school but not a bachelor’s degree. Those jobs include professions such as police officers, electricians, mechanics, and plumbers, along with numerous emerging occupations like computer programmers, robotic and industrial equipment technicians, and many types of healthcare specialists.

The cost of attending college is burdening students with mountains of debt: Federal Reserve data show that more than 44 million borrowers across the country collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion on their student loans.

Policymakers should take notice. The poll found that 90 percent of the parents sampled think that improving the quality of K-12 education should be a big or very big priority for the current administration. That’s a tall order for a group of elected officials who seem to find consensus on even the most noncontroversial issues fleeting at best.

Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon (file) Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon (file) Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Loan forgiveness program in crisis

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the nation’s largest teachers unions, sued the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month, claiming that a federal program designed to forgive certain student loans had refused loan discharges in error.

Created in 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program forgives student debts once participants complete 10 years of monthly payments while employed full time in service occupations such as teaching, nursing, policing, and select nonprofit and public service jobs.

As of June 2018, the program had discharged $534.8 million in eligible student debts, according to the Education Department. But data from the department also shows that PSLF administrators denied tens of thousands of claims that the AFT says were refused in error and not the borrowers’ fault.

Turmoil has surrounded the PSLF program for nearly two years. Borrowers complain about its complex eligibility rules, and many say they made their 10 years of payments only to find out they weren’t eligible because they didn’t have the right type of loan or payment plan.

Congress attempted to provide a temporary fix to the beleaguered program by issuing $350 million in funding as part of the omnibus spending bill passed in March 2018. But those funds have benefitted just 262 borrowers of the more than 38,000 who applied, The Washington Post reported. Six months later, the Government Accountability Office urged the Education Department to enact more cohesive guidelines and controls on the program.

Some Democrats blame Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for failing to fix the issues with PSLF. But DeVos countered that Congress created the mess with the program’s needlessly complex rules. She also has raised questions about the inequities of incentivizing certain types of jobs over others, and President Donald Trump recommended eliminating the program as part of his 2020 proposed budget.

Some critics, like the American Enterprise Institute’s Jason Delisle, complain that the program is overly generous and overburdened with high-debt borrowers. “Department statistics show that most participants borrowed well in excess of $50,000 in federal loans, and one-third borrowed more than $100,000,” he wrote last year. “Such high debt levels indicate that the program is mostly benefiting borrowers with graduate degrees.” Delisle explained that taxpayers foot the bill for the entire remainder after the 10th year, regardless of the original loan amount. Including interest, that can easily exceed $100,000 per borrower, he said.

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but the department is “faithfully administering the complex program Congress passed.” —L.E.

Textbooks of the future

Education publisher Pearson recently announced it plans to phase out its traditional print textbooks.

“We are now over the digital tipping point,” Pearson CEO John Fallon told the BBC.

For years now, the textbook industry has struggled to monetize digital educational resources while recouping investments on still-popular print materials. Currently, more than half of Pearson’s annual revenue comes from digital sales. The company will taper off its rate of updates to print textbooks in hopes that more customers will choose from its growing catalogue of continually updated digital materials.

But the robust used and rental textbook market won’t go away anytime soon. Data compiled in a 2018 guide by LeadWinds, a discount online textbook and course material provider, found that more than two-thirds of college students buy used textbooks, and more than half opt to rent conventional print books and course materials. Only 25 percent reported using digital textbooks for their college courses. —L.E.

Teachers union touts abortion support

The National Education Association adopted a business item at its annual meeting earlier this month declaring its support of abortion as a “fundamental right.” The NEA has long been a vocal advocate for abortion, but the new language is more aggressive than what the union previously used.

The change was one of 160 individual business items up for vote on a wide range of topics from mundane organizational housekeeping to more extreme calls for action. While the teachers union adopted many items or referred them to committees, some of the most extreme failed to pass. One of them called for a national teachers strike in support of the Green New Deal, another demanded that political candidates seeking the union’s endorsement publicly oppose all charter schools, and one called for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 07/25/2019 09:40 am

    Re: The NEA:  What does abortion, the Green New Deal, political candidates, or impeaching the President have to do with supporting or protecting public school teachers from poor pay for long hours of work?  That is what unions are supposed to do, right?