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Blog: Paul Ryan's Take on Education Policy Leaves Room for Improvement

Jul 29, 2014 | By Bethan Johnson

In his Expanding Opportunity in America, Congressman Paul Ryan spends a lot of time talking about education policy: actually almost as much as he talks about his “opportunity grant.” Sadly, though, it hasn't received the headlines of his safety net suggestions. This "getting buried" is more than just a disservice: it's a potential danger to Americans, as Ryan's proposed policy changes in education, if enacted, would fundamentally alter the lives of generations of Americans.

Americans must accept the fact that our education system is falling short of the exceptionalism we so often boast about, as we are now ranked 36th in the world in regards to our overall education. As the global economy demands more skilled labor, reforming our education system is the first step in returning us to primacy in both intellectually and economically, something Ryan wants included in his political legacy.

To this end Ryan, has opened up his work for criticism, asking everyone from lobbyists on K Street to tourists on Main Street to weigh in on his anti-poverty ideas. In the spirit of the educational system he seeks to reform, the draft Mr. Ryan produces elicits the following grade: “Despite demonstrating new knowledge about education and poverty, there is room for improvement. See me after class.

Even before carefully considering his solutions, reader’s first reaction to the chapter will undoubtedly be about its rhetoric. Ryan is already more famous for his skillful (and sometimes not-so-skillful) language than his successful political actions, and his anti-poverty education plan finds its greatest strengths in its verbiage. On every page there are nuggets of progressive language promising low-income communities more authority in the face of a financial system working against them. First, Ryan commendably, although belatedly, acknowledges that poverty and education are inextricably linked, something refreshing as too many politicians seek to tackle the social ills separately. More importantly, Ryan recognizes that there truly are two separate education systems in America, one for the poor and another for the wealthy. Citing statistics pointing to the large gap in graduation rates based on financial background, Ryan sees that students from low-income backgrounds are fundamentally disadvantaged in the classroom. He also rightly understands that mending the gap between these two educational experiences is the duty of the federal government.

However, it is critical not to confuse sentiment with sensible solutions. While Ryan presented the document to the press by flaunting his newfound understanding of poverty he gained through a nationwide tour over the last year, readers should not forget that he is the same man who has authored so many other documents on poverty that would have merited him “Needs Improvement” marks on his report card. It is when readers get to the heart of Ryan’s idea that the plan he promotes epitomizes that the true meaning of draft—a work that needs improvement.

As is to be expected from anything with the words Ryan and funding in it, alterations to Head Start is at the heart of his early childhood education plan. His plan converts the funding for Head Start—in his opinion a failed program—and other sources of funding for early childhood education into a block grant, which he argues will provide states and educators more flexibility for programming endeavors. The Congressman also states that by transforming early childhood education’s funding from small grants with a variety of limiting provisions (as it currently stands) to one large block grant, it can embrace the experimental nature of the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, which mandates a certain percentage of the grant be devoted to finding innovative new sources of assistance for low-income people. Ryan believes that only a block grant given to states with stipulations like that of MIECHV can provide legislators and educators with the flexibility and funding they need to instill life-long social and academic skills in their students.

For those who know anything about Ryan’s education platform, the focus on changing Head Start is a cause for alarm. Ryan’s federal budgets have consistently included deep cuts to the program. One of his budgets cut $1.1 billion from early childhood education; therefore the fear that placing Head Start within a block grant structure serves only as a pit-stop to Ryan’s goal of defunding the program is not unmerited. Advocates who wish to ensure the survival of the program should come to the discussion with ways to guarantee that Ryan and the House Budget Committee do not use this format as a multi-step plan to disband Head Start and devote its money to defense spending or elsewhere.

In addition to adopting the block grant model, and in spite of his distaste for Head Start, Ryan also mirrors an attitude found throughout the program’s ideology: that children’s education is not only a function of their time in the classroom but also in the home. It is in this spirit that the proposal has stated its desire to lump the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) into the “opportunity grant.”

By connecting CCDF to the “opportunity grant,” children are left vulnerable. The grant requires that penalties be doled out for adults who fail to meet contractual deadlines, so it would be possible that money typically devoted to childcare or nourishment may be cut from a family’s budget.

Ryan renews his faith in the merits of the block grant model of funding in his plan for elementary and secondary education. Funding for the now nine facets of the Title I-A program and other, smaller programs focused on secondary education would be converted into one large block grant given to states annually. Ryan uses examples of local-grown anti-drug and anti-gang programs in the states he visited as proof that many of the potential creative sources fighting on the “front lines” of poverty are too localized to warrant federal attention through the current system of multiple funding streams, and thus remain under-funded.

Despite what Ryan says the block grant model will do in regards to growing creative programming, it is vital to understand that this funding model also makes all forms of assistance for low-income students more vulnerable. When grouped together, funding becomes easier for Congress to cut; additionally, certain aspects of education currently guaranteed through the Title I-A system could be essentially eliminated without much recourse if states decide to simply devote funds to other causes. For example, currently there is one facet of Title I-A funding uniquely specified for the education of immigrant and non-English speaking communities. Given the current vitriol towards children seeking asylum, it would be possible for state legislators to choose to divert money away from this program in order to discourage immigrant communities from forming in their state.

Also noteworthy in his secondary school policy, Ryan plans to help states further foster successful teaching styles and community programs by advocating for the continuation of annual report cards to measure schools’ performances. Educators and legislators alike have rightly objected to the report card system, stating that it first asks that under-funded schools produce equal results to those by richer schools, and then justifies continuing to under-fund these needy schools when they fail to meet that standard; thus the Ryan plan would only perpetuate an already broken cycle.

In his final section on education reform, Ryan handles higher education with a unique mixture of understanding and cruelty. Recognizing the hefty fees associated with four-year institutions that do not always guarantee the skills necessary for gainful employment, Ryan’s proposal seeks to ease the financial burden on low income students by changing the accreditation process so that specific courses, not just programs, would be accredited; students who know their intended occupation could take those courses best suited for their job’s skill set, build their own major, and graduate earlier and with less debt. Such a step will help train a better prepared work force that hopefully will not be crippled with exorbitant debt.

Ryan also suggests alterations to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application will change the attitude of accessibility toward college for students from low-income families. Currently, the application is lengthy, confusing, and sometimes results are given months after students learn about their college admissions, meaning some low-income students discover they cannot afford the dream school that admitted them months before. Ryan wants to make the document more user-friendly, more aligned with college acceptance decisions, and begin teaching families about FAFSA as early as eighth grade; such steps, however seemingly small, would foster a more friendly college application process for low-income applicants.

Beyond these two major victories in changing the attitudes of students towards higher education, Ryan’s plans for college affordability and job training are grim. First, Ryan proposes capping the currently limitless government-regulated loans to students and their families; Ryan notes that this unfettered ability to borrow money has caused many to fall into extreme debt. To fight this problem, Ryan suggests capping Grad PLUS loans at $138,000 and Parent PLUS loans at $57,500.

The idea of placing limits on loans is problematic and may continue to limit low-income students’ ability to enter into top-paying fields. If they cannot receive the necessary loans to pay for graduate school, how can they manage to become lawyers or doctors? The Congressman’s concern over the harmful effect of loans on low-income families may also be classed as disingenuous given that he has voted to allow student loans to accrue interest while students are still attending college.

Ryan also proposes reorganizing and modernizing the Pell Grant and TRIO programs. First, Ryan seeks to unite many of the separate funding sources for low-income first-generation college students authorized as TRIO programs into a single block grant model. The concerns about Congress more easily cutting funding from a block grant than from multiple, smaller funding sources remains present in this funding model.

Ryan also vaguely suggests making alterations to the Pell Grant program’s funding and other requirements in order to “modernize” it. While the argument can be made that the vague language of “modernize” is because the document is still a draft, the murkiness is worrying. Much like his attacks on Head Start, Ryan has long been an advocate of limiting the Pell Grant program: as late as April of this year his budget would have cut $170 billion from the program and cut off 1 million Americans’ access to federal grants over the next 10 years.

Finally, Ryan tackles the issue of job training with an eye for consolidation. The document points to the confusing web of job training programs—47 across nine agencies to be exact—and the House Education and Workforce Committee’s findings that there are over 50 duplicative training programs as a reason to merge a variety of programs with similar goals. With fewer programs to sort through, Ryan believes students and government officials alike will find this facet of education easier to negotiate.

Although supporting easy access and understanding of job training programs is absolutely necessary, Ryan must be held to his word that when programs are consolidated, what emerges includes all previously separate funding. While stated in the speech he gave when he released his report, no language stipulates this in the document, and thus it is activists’ job to hold Ryan to his word.

Congressman Ryan’s education plan is many things: obsessed with streamlining; employment focused; more bipartisan than expected; but more than anything: it isn’t perfect. The conflict of hope and distrust, particularly about Pell Grants and Head Start, get at the heart of people’s response to this entire anti-poverty plan: has Paul Ryan actually changed? Can we trust these plans at face-value?

Despite doubts, history, and what some pundits say, if we ask our politicians to change their ideology, the least we can do is to begin a dialogue, however weary, with them when they seem to be responding. With the word “draft” in the title, activists committed to the common good are called on to raise their hands, as well as their voices, and contribute to the conversation on education.