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America needs an 'all of the above' strategy to expand educational opportunity


Washington Examiner. March 21, 2014. By Bobby Jindal.

President Obama has promised to make 2014 a “year of action” dedicated toward “opportunity for all.”

Unfortunately, the actions his administration is taking are moving our country in exactly the wrong direction, and will deny educational opportunities to families most in need of them.

Last week, the Education Department proposed new rules that would effectively reduce access to higher education, particularly for low-income and minority Americans. The proposed “gainful employment” regulation -- which imposes performance metrics on colleges when it comes to their students' post-graduation employment and earnings -- sounds good in theory. After all, who doesn't want to ensure students receive quality jobs, and can afford to pay back their student loans?

But as with most plans developed by federal bureaucrats, the devil is in the details. First, the “gainful employment” regulation discriminates in the programs it targets. The new guidelines don’t apply to traditional four-year degree programs. Instead, community colleges and for-profit institutions that serve non-traditional students — the working mother trying to put herself through school, or the mid-career professional studying part-time to climb the career ladder — will feel the brunt of the new rules.

Targeting only institutions that serve non-traditional students means these students, who come from disproportionately low-income, African-American, and Hispanic communities, will be harmed. Facing new federal mandates that could put them out of business, some institutions may respond by avoiding non-traditional students less likely to graduate -- thus reducing education access to those who need quality training most. That's why the National Black Chamber of Commerceopposed an earlier version of the proposed rules, saying the “harsh regulations” will “hurt black and minority students.”

Sadly, the “gainful employment” mess mirrors the Obama administration's actions in Louisiana. Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder filed a federal lawsuit seeking to impede our state's innovative school choice program. Despite the fact that minority students comprise the overwhelming majority of school choice voucher recipients, Holder and the Justice Department cited federal civil rights laws and cases in seeking to block the voucher program. My administration has fought those efforts because we don't believe Washington regulations should deny low-income and African-American students the quality education they will need to succeed in life.

It’s easy to talk about educational opportunities if you attended an Ivy League university, or if you have the financial resources to send your children to pricey private schools, as Obama has done. But it’s not so easy to get ahead if you’re a single parent desperately trying to find a better school for your children, or if you’re a good student from a low-income household seeking to become the first in your family to attend college. That’s why we need to empower parents and students with quality, customized educational choices that work to meet their needs.

Just as our country needs an “all of the above” energy strategy, so too does America need an “all of the above” strategy when it comes to educational opportunities. We should work tirelessly to improve public schools, provide new charter school options, and more parent choice, so no child remains stuck in a failing school. And when it comes to higher education, we need to provide our next generation a wide variety of choices — from four-year degrees offered by traditional not-for-profit universities, to certificate programs offered by for-profit colleges, to specialized training programs offered by businesses looking to enhance their workers’ skills.

In Louisiana, we’re working to build an “all of the above” education strategy. We’ve reformed our teacher training and tenure laws, and encouraged the development of charter schools. Our school choice program has given thousands of low-income students a fresh start by giving them the opportunity to select better schools. And this year, we’ve proposed a new $40 million grant program for higher education, focused on training programs that will give Louisianians the practical skills they need to compete in the global economy.

Earlier this year, the president famously said he had a “pen and a phone” through which he would embark on his “year of action” to give Americans more opportunity. But we should be taking actions that give low-income and African-American students more educational opportunities, not using federal mandates to take them away.

My advice to the president is simple: Put down the regulatory pen, scrap the “gainful employment” rules, and use the phone to give me a call. I’d love to work with you on ways we can expand educational opportunities for all Americans.