Wednesday Reading List: Education Politics in LA and Free College is Possible, But No Panacea

(Dear Readers: I am traveling this week, so the daily "Reading Lists" may be abbreviated. I also may post them at idiosyncratic times. Thanks for your patience!)

Yesterday in Los Angeles, pro-charter school candidates won local school board elections, effectively creating a pro-reform majority on the city's school board. The Los Angeles Times looks at the ramifications:

The charter school movement has long been a major force in Los Angeles school circles. But the victory Tuesday night by pro-charter forces — who dramatically outspent rivals in what was the most expensive election in school board history — gives them the opportunity to reshape the district. The election marks a defeat for teacher union forces, who have long been a power center in L.A. school politics. With their new majority, charter school backers can press their campaign to expand such schools across the city. Charter forces have long been critical of how the LAUSD is run. Now they will have to show they can steer the massive, often frustrating, bureaucracy better.

There are interesting lessons here, both for education activists and for political strategists more broadly. From an education standpoint, this looks like a big win for the pro-reform camp. It's important to remember, though, that reformers lost critical races in the last two LA school board elections, while spending mightily in those cases as well. In other words, this election wasn't just about money.  Long-term grassroots organizing and the indefensible performance of the system surely were powerful factors.

Second, as Sarah Favot of The 74 points out, Bernie Sanders publicly endorsed the incumbent board president in the race, who lost by a whopping twenty point margin. 

At some level, it's easy to overdetermine the meaning of this outcome, as hyper-local education politics can be remarkably insulated from broader political trends ... but it's notable the Sanders's electoral coattails couldn't even lift an incumbent in a school board race in deep blue Los Angeles.

In other news, David W. Chen of The New York Times looks at free college in Tennessee:

In Tennessee, where Ms. Riel and other members of Tennessee’s first cohort of scholarship recipients graduate this spring, community college enrollment numbers are up by a third, while the amount that students are having to borrow from the federal government is down, though it is unclear what effect the money is having on on-time graduation, a key goal of the New York plan. And at least some of the state’s four-year colleges have faced declining enrollment, as more students use community college as a steppingstone to a four-year degree ... What Tennessee did exceptionally well, by all accounts, was promote the Promise program by emphasizing a simple yet powerful message — free tuition — and gradually winning over hundreds of school officials and community leaders.

That final point is critical, as many proposals to make college "free" are dressed-up versions of existing student loan policies. We need to dispense with the gimmicks and policy kludges. If we want to make college free, we should make it free ... it shouldn't come with a loan that explodes unpredictably like floating-interest-rate mortgage.

Affordability is not the only barrier to college success, however, Here's Nick Ehrmann, writing in The Atlantic:

The goal of the “free-college” movement is, of course, to help more students access the benefits of a college education. To make that happen, it is necessary for policymakers to examine why that’s not happening today ... The prevailing academic-achievement ideology in the United States sends a clear message to young people: Higher education provides a ticket to a better life. Schools routinely hang college banners from classrooms starting in kindergarten, intending to create a college-going culture that is consistently reinforced by teachers, principals, parents, even U.S. presidents. But for decades, as more and more students celebrated reaching the “finish line” of K-12 education with admissions letters in hand, very little of the discussion of the improving rate of both high-school graduation and college enrollment has examined whether students are growing intellectually and becoming prepared for success in college-level coursework.

Wait, so free college for everyone won't solve all of our problems?

Sigh. I guess the search for a panacea continues. Have a great day!