As I waited for my twice-delayed flight to board in shimmering, subtle McGhee-Tyson Airport, Air Force One descended into Knoxville, Tennessee. This Presidential visit had no scarcity of fanfare – miles of interstate blocked off, a kaleidoscopic display of armed officers from various divisions, and even an entire floor of a local hospital occupied by Service agents in the event of an emergency. This kind of preparation I find entirely appropriate, though I question the purpose and result of President Obama’s visit to my quiet town of the South.
It was in Knoxville that the President would announce his new plan, “America’s College Promise,” a clumsier parroting of Tennessee’s own state-level initiative Tennessee Promise. The state’s governor, Bill Haslam, has become well-known for his activism in the realm of education: spearheading the drafting of Common Core State Standards as a member of Achieve, Inc., expanding TVAS (a student performance based teacher evaluation system), and seeking to fill an increasing job demand throughout the state requiring college degrees. The governor has made substantial progress, despite my fundamental frustration with his pragmatic, career-concerned motives.
His most positive contribution to my home state may indeed be Tennessee Promise. The program has enabled many students who otherwise lacked the resources – or the incentive – to attend a two-year community college at no cost. Several peers from my graduating class are currently enrolled at schools like Pellissippi State Community College (the precise location of the President’s announcement) and are en route towards earning a degree. For a state entrenched in conservatism and fiscal responsibility (read restraint), a program such as this seems a dues ex machina. So how did it happen?
In order to make free education a reality, cuts had to be made. These adjustments were made in primarily two ways. First, Tennessee had to adjust its educational budget, as well as incorporate Tennessee Lottery profits at a higher proportion. Second, and more pertinent to the proposed national plan, the community colleges themselves needed to increase affordability. This can be achieved through a number of outlets: reduction of faculty, decreased allocations for renovation and future initiatives, or even, in some cases, by lowering the requirements needed to earn certain degree programs leading to a faster turnover rate. This type of negotiation took place between State leaders and the administrations of several colleges across the state to, for better or for worse, make everything cost less.
Contrast this approach to that of the President. He deigns to visit the state where an admirable program started, which arguable only appeared on his radar due to a recent improvement on National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. Amazingly, he promises the exact offerings of the state-level program without providing a single line of strategy for created funding or ensuring sustainability. In other words, he stole the cake without doing any baking. The problem, of course, is that cakes are constantly being consumed and in present-day America, exceptional bakers, not thieves, mark positive governmental programs.
Of course, this type of intentionally myopic announcement is not unprecedented in presidential history by any estimation. More alarming is the reality that a free community college education is only one decade away from a mandatory community college education. While an increasing number of economic indicators suggest that such a national effort may become imperative, an even greater number of indicators suggest that early childhood education is the most cost-effective investment the government can make in a citizen’s life.
So, create America’s College Promise. Make it a mandatory, cost-free early childhood education program that gets the children of this nation in a classroom before their brains are commandeered by other forces. Fund the program first through extensive negotiations with local school districts and even the possibility of allowing graduation in the 11th rather than 12th grade. Then, and only then, make a promise to this nation, a promise you can keep.