Obama Promotes Education as Equalizer

By Don Rollins

Raise your hand if you attended a public university. Now put it down, bow your head and offer up a prayer of thanks for a long dead New England Yankee by the name of Horace Mann.

Unless you believe in an afterlife, Mann (1796-1859) was nowhere near Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) Feb. 13 when President Obama rolled out his 2013 budget. But damned if the president didn’t channel America’s “father of education” anyway as he connected the dots between higher learning and economic recovery.

Obama skipped the threadbare appeal to a “next generation” social contract. And no tired, space race, math-and-science proclamations. Just an in-your-face challenge to a reactionary GOP that swears allegiance to upward mobility. The same party that is choking off federal funding to state universities – proven vehicles for a better educated populace, higher employment and reliable tax revenue.

In the NOVA speech, Obama introduced his plan with the bellicose title: “Blueprint to Train Two Million Workers for High-Demand Industries through a Community College to Career Fund.” A bit cumbersome for a battle cry. The rock-ribbed reformer he spiritually summoned was more succinct: “Education is the great equalizer.” A son of poor Massachusetts farmers, Horace Mann took the bootstrap plan out of poverty: from teaching himself to read to Brown College; from Brown to state office; and from state office to president of Antioch College. But it was Father Mann’s unflagging work on behalf of public-funded education that should inform Obama all these years later. Mann campaigned to build and renovate school buildings, update textbooks and establish “normal” schools to prepare teachers.

He successfully lobbied the Massachusetts legislature to set aside funds for free community libraries. As his crowning achievement, he helped secure Antioch as the nonsectarian and coeducational template eventually used by public universities and colleges throughout whole swaths of the country. The guy was a force in his day, a worthy guide in times like these. But this is not the 19th century.

We’ve since constructed a special interest-beholden, serpentine system of government that makes it difficult to reform much of anything. Given that we’re ruled by gridlock (broken now and then by sagging markets or neo-populist movements like the tea party) even if we had a Horace Mann we wouldn’t what to do with him.

What we have is a vulnerable sitting president and a mounting list of public universities and community colleges caught between fewer federal dollars and the rising costs of doing business.

The standard solution to date is to shift the burden to students and their families. Obama chose NOVA as the backdrop to introduce measures to reverse that trend – permanent education tax credits, holding the line on Pell grants and mandating interest ceilings for student loans – but who can say for sure that the requisite number of Democrats in either house will get behind the president on this one.

What we can say for sure is that higher education – the great equalizer – should be the no-duh economic strategy of the 2012 election.

Don Rollins writes in Raleigh, N.C. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2012


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