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Karen Hitchcock - Election 2012: The Republican Education Platform

Election 2012 is now in full swing.  The rhetoric is escalating across many different policy areas  --  from the economy, to international relations and defense, to healthcare, to immigration, to such social issues as abortion rights and same sex marriage.  In my commentary today, I will focus on the education components of the just – released Republican platform.   Subsequent commentaries will address the Democratic education platform and discuss how the public policy proposals of each party differ and could impact K-12 and higher education.

A highly-charged, complex concept central to the GOP education platform is that of K-12 “choice.”  As in their 2008 education platform, the Republicans stress the need for a broad spectrum of K-12 educational opportunities:   learning innovations such as home schooling, single-sex classes, full-day school hours, and year-round schools; as well as expanded school “choice” through charter schools, open-enrollment, college lab schools, virtual schools, career and technical education, vouchers and tax credits.  Debate on the impact of such a policy will again, I predict, be both heated and wide-ranging.  

Further, the Republicans stress that “the common experience of families, teachers and administrators forms the basis of what does work in education,” and that expanding such locally-developed models, funded by block grants to the states, is the most effective approach to school reform.  They clearly do not feel that major increases in funding are necessary or effective; rather, local control and decreased federal regulations should, in their view, foster innovation and increase the effectiveness of K-12 education in our country.

At the post-secondary level, the GOP platform also introduces the concept of choice, urging that “alternatives” be developed to traditional colleges – alternatives which would include “community colleges and technical institutions, private training schools, online universities, life-long learning and work-based learning in the private sector.”  The platform speaks directly to the GOP view that colleges are not being responsive to labor market needs.  “It is time --  the platform states  --   to get back to basics and to higher education programs directly related to job opportunities.”   Such a sentiment is aligned with the view expressed in a recent National Governor’s Association survey of employers that “…the U.S. has a mismatch between the skills employers need and the degrees and certifications students receive.” Beyond providing more labor market – friendly options, expanding the types of post-secondary institutions would also, the GOP feels, create a competitive environment which could drive down the escalating tuition costs of more traditional colleges and universities.

In terms of federal student aid, the GOP stresses two points: simplify the process and restore bank-based lending, a practice in direct conflict with President Obama’s commitment to the federal government’s direct loan program.  The GOP stance on immigration and affirmative action is also reflected in the education platform; for instance, the platform states that any college or university charging in-state tuition to illegal immigrants should be denied all federal funding.

In a just-released analysis of the GOP education platform in Inside Higher Ed entitled, “Taking on Higher Ed,” Paul Fain states that “The Republican Party’s 2012 platform has strong words for high education’s alleged failings, on ideological bias as well as unsustainable tuition hikes.”  He goes on to stay that “…the overall tone [of the platform] about the sector is combative.”

In terms of tuition increases, the platform, not unlike current initiatives of the Obama administration, calls for greater transparency so that college applicants and their parents are well-informed regarding graduation rates, loan repayment rates, average wages upon graduation, etc.  In terms of ideological bias, as in 2008, the platform addresses the party’s conviction that “the left” controls out nation’s universities.  The platform states that “Ideological bias is deeply entrenched within the current university system.  We call on state officials to ensure that our public colleges and universities be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the left.”  How such a characterization of our nation’s colleges and universities would impact future Republican policy decisions, and how it would play out among young college voters remains to be seen…a bloc of voters already more in tune with Democratic policies regarding abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and increased Pell tuition grants, among many others.

While, understandably, the GOP Platform speaks largely to K-12 educational issues, higher education clearly is on the GOP radar screen, especially in terms of accountability, additional choices of institutional type, student loan programs and perceived ideological bias. Overall, the clear policy focus of the platform is to create additional “choice” and to reduce the regulatory role of the federal government.  Inspiring and supporting local, grass-roots efforts at reform are consistent across both the K-12 and the higher education components of the platform.

The Democratic platform regarding these same issues will be the topic of my next commentary.   How the two parties address such critical issues as K-12 reform and affordable access to higher education could well impact major voting blocs in the November election.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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