There’s been a fair amount of talk on Capitol Hill recently about student loans and interest rates, which led to an unsatisfying compromise in the Senate. But as part of the larger discussion, a notable lawmaker said something interesting that stood out for me.
Getting American kids into college without saddling them with massive debt shouldn’t be the government’s job, according to a prominent House Republican and possible 2014 Senate candidate. “It is not the role of the Congress to make college affordable and accessible,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said Wednesday morning during a committee markup of legislation that would halt federal officials from regulating for-profit educational institutions.
Foxx likened federal standards for things like the definition of a credit-hour to totalitarianism.
Well, sure, of course she did. She’s Virginia Foxx.
But it’s worth noting that there’s nothing inherently incorrect about her views on the federal role in higher education. It’s an inherently subjective question – some people believe federal policymakers have a role in making college affordable and accessible, some don’t. Foxx has her opinions on the matter, I have mine.
I’ve long hoped, however, that this generates a larger conversation about the future of the United States as a global superpower. There’s a spirited competition underway, and we have real rivals who’d be delighted to see us settle for second place. To remain on top, we’re going to need an educated workforce and electorate, and with this in mind, it makes sense if Americans were represented by a Congress that prioritized access to affordable higher-ed.
Or perhaps the nation prefers Foxx’s vision: some states will help young people get degrees; some won’t; Congress doesn’t care. Under this approach, education is of relative importance, but it’s just not a national priority.
Long-time readers have no doubt seen me mention this before, but I often think about some specific remarks President Obama made in 2009. He’d just returned from a trip to East Asia, and Obama shared an anecdote about a luncheon he attended with the then-president of South Korea.
“I was interested in education policy – they’ve grown enormously over the last 40 years. And I asked him, what are the biggest challenges in your education policy? He said, ‘The biggest challenge that I have is that my parents are too demanding.’ He said, ‘Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education.’ He said, ‘I’ve had to import thousands of foreign teachers because they’re all insisting that Korean children have to learn English in elementary school.’ That was the biggest education challenge that he had, was an insistence, a demand from parents for excellence in the schools.
“And the same thing was true when I went to China. I was talking to the mayor of Shanghai, and I asked him about how he was doing recruiting teachers, given that they’ve got 25 million people in this one city. He said, ‘We don’t have problems recruiting teachers because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions.’
“That gives you a sense of what’s happening around the world. There is a hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for science and math and technology and learning. That used to be what we were about.”
Right. The United States used to be about a lot of things.
But as we discussed in April, many American policymakers have shifted their focus away from insisting on excellence and towards, well, a Virginia Foxx-like attitude. Countries like South Korea and China can have their hunger for knowledge; we’ll just keep cutting education spending and hope for the best.
We’re the wealthiest country on the planet by an order of magnitude, so maybe we can just coast for a while, neglecting key priorities. Maybe we can stop looking at areas like education, energy, health care, and transportation as national problems – the way our competitors do – and can instead hope states figure something out. Someday. With some elusive resources.
Put it this way: while some countries are insisting on excellence in education, our country shrugs its shoulders while kids get thrown out of pre-schools because of budget cuts and young adults get priced out of college. Which side of the ocean is preparing for the future?