Bernie Sanders’s Education Platform Finds New Life in the States

Governors and gubernatorial wannabes are adopting the senator’s proposal for taxpayer-funded higher education.

Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Brooklyn College commencement ceremony on May 30.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
June 26, 2017, 8 p.m.

Bernie Sanders didn’t achieve the goal of en­act­ing free col­lege tu­ition na­tion­ally through his cam­paign for the White House, and the idea is highly un­likely to be ap­proved by a Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Con­gress.

But at the state level, the idea is find­ing new life.

This year both gov­ernors and can­did­ates for gov­ernor have taken up the mantle of provid­ing tax­pay­er-sub­sid­ized high­er edu­ca­tion in hopes of ap­peal­ing to sup­port­ers of the self-de­scribed demo­crat­ic so­cial­ist as well as Pres­id­ent Trump.

“This is one of the legacies of the Sanders cam­paign,” said Ben Tulchin, a poll­ster on the sen­at­or’s pres­id­en­tial bid. “You put an idea out there, and it’s spread­ing.”

New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo signed le­gis­la­tion in April—with the vo­cal sup­port of Sanders and Hil­lary Clin­ton—that re­duced the cost of tu­ition at four-year pub­lic uni­versit­ies. Last week, the Rhode Is­land House passed a scaled-down ver­sion of Gov. Gina Rai­mondo’s high­er-edu­ca­tion plan to provide two free years of com­munity-col­lege classes in ex­change for in-state res­id­ency after gradu­ation. And two years ago, Gov. Kate Brown lowered com­munity-col­lege tu­ition to $50 a term for eli­gible Ore­go­ni­ans. All three Demo­crats are seek­ing four-year terms in 2018.

The ini­ti­at­ive is gain­ing ground thanks to some Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors as well. Arkan­sas Gov. Asa Hutchin­son, who is seek­ing reelec­tion next year, signed a law in March that boosts grants for two years of tu­ition at pub­lic schools for stu­dents in cer­tain fields. Ken­tucky Gov. Matt Bev­in, who will face voters again in 2019, en­acted a sim­il­ar re­form in April. Term-lim­ited Ten­ness­ee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill last month pay­ing for free com­munity col­lege.

More states could join that group if some can­did­ates have their way. Vir­gin­ia Lt. Gov. Ral­ph Northam, the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee in this year’s gov­ernor race, prom­ises the state will cov­er the cost of as­so­ci­ate de­grees or work­force cre­den­tials for what he calls “new col­lar jobs” in ex­change for one year of “pub­lic ser­vice.” The Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee in New Jer­sey, Phil Murphy, has only gone as far as to pro­pose for­giv­ing loans for stu­dents of math and sci­ence.

“Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats both re­cog­nize the im­port­ance of work­force de­vel­op­ment as part of at­tract­ing and grow­ing busi­nesses,” Northam spokes­man Dav­id Turn­er said. “With a smart, fisc­ally re­spons­ible, tar­geted plan, you can find bi­par­tis­an sup­port.”

In Iowa, where Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Kim Reyn­olds re­cently re­placed Am­bas­sad­or to China Terry Bran­stad, Demo­crat Todd Prichard launched his cam­paign stat­ing that “com­munity col­lege should be tu­ition-free.” In an email to sup­port­ers in April, the state rep­res­ent­at­ive called the pro­pos­al a “com­mon sense” means of “build­ing a 21st cen­tury work­force.”

Polling by PSB Re­search for the Cam­paign for Free Col­lege Tu­ition found three-fourths of re­spond­ents across ideo­lo­gic­al and gen­er­a­tion­al lines sup­por­ted free col­lege for stu­dents, es­pe­cially for those who meet min­im­um aca­dem­ic re­quire­ments.

Tulchin said polling for the Sanders cam­paign showed that the “as­pir­a­tion­al mes­sage” of mak­ing col­lege af­ford­able was “par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with mil­len­ni­als,” who make up the ma­jor­ity of new stu­dents and gradu­ates. But he ad­ded that “it has really broad ap­peal,” in­clud­ing to adult learners or fam­il­ies, es­pe­cially “if you can make it af­ford­able.”

At least one gov­ernor can­did­ate, New­ton, Mas­sachu­setts May­or Setti War­ren, has ac­know­ledged this won’t be free. War­ren kicked off his own cam­paign for the nom­in­a­tion to chal­lenge pop­u­lar first-term Gov. Charlie Baker by pro­pos­ing high­er taxes on wealthy Bay Staters in or­der to pay for free pub­lic col­lege.

With tax in­creases a per­petu­al cudgel, Re­pub­lic­ans ques­tion the ex­pense re­quired to sub­sid­ize col­lege. Northam has said the $37 mil­lion in­vest­ment needed for his plan would be paid back twice over in in­come-tax rev­en­ue in five years, but Dav­id Ab­rams, a spokes­man for Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Ed Gillespie, re­tor­ted, “We can make two-year and four-year col­lege more af­ford­able without hav­ing to raise taxes on hard­work­ing Vir­gini­ans.”

“If Vir­gini­ans think col­lege is ex­pens­ive now, wait un­til Lieu­ten­ant Gov­ernor Northam makes it ‘free,’” Ab­rams said.

Col­or­ado Demo­crat Mike John­ston, who is run­ning for an open seat prom­ising debt-free col­lege or job train­ing, said in an in­ter­view Sat­urday that his plan bal­ances the con­straints of “a tightly con­trolled budget” with grow­ing both em­ploy­ment and wages by part­ner­ing with private busi­nesses and re­quir­ing pub­lic ser­vice in ex­change for tu­ition breaks.

While the idea gained no­tori­ety thanks to a na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic cam­paign, John­ston ar­gues that among the “primary tar­gets” of his pro­pos­al are “a lot of the places where Demo­crats lost,” in­clud­ing rur­al and middle-class com­munit­ies.

“We’ve got a lot of white, work­ing-class folks who are in in­dus­tries that they think are un­der fire and they’re not sure where their next op­por­tun­ity is go­ing to come from,” John­ston said. “I think this really speaks to them.”

More can­did­ates will likely take sim­il­ar po­s­i­tions. Kev­in Har­ris, a spokes­man for Mary­land gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Ben Jeal­ous, said Monday that free col­lege is a “core and cent­ral theme” of the Demo­crat’s cam­paign and that a pro­pos­al with more spe­cif­ics is in the works. Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turn­er, a pos­sible gov­ernor can­did­ate next year, like Jeal­ous is on the Board of Dir­ect­ors for Our Re­volu­tion, a polit­ic­al non­profit in­spired by Sanders that ad­voc­ates mak­ing “tu­ition free at pub­lic col­leges and uni­versit­ies.”

Di­ane May, a spokes­wo­man for Our Re­volu­tion, said the na­tion­al group is also “act­ively or­gan­iz­ing around” free high­er edu­ca­tion.

“It’s not an is­sue that’s go­ing to go away,” May said.

What We're Following See More »
Trump Inauguration Spending Now Under Investigation
3 days ago

"Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether President Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee misspent some of the record $107 million it raised from donations, people familiar with the matter said. The criminal probe by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, which is in its early stages, also is examining whether some of the committee’s top donors gave money in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to influence official administration positions."

Senate Moves to End Support for Saudi War
3 days ago
Butina Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy
3 days ago

"Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday for conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent in the United States. Butina, 30, was accused of working to infiltrate Republican political circles through groups such as the National Rifle Association to bolster Russian interests." She admitted to acting "under direction of" Alexander Torshin. "She faces a maximum of five years in prison and will likely be deported after serving any time."

Cohen Sentenced to 36 Months in Prison
4 days ago
Senate Passes Farm Bill, 87-13
5 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.