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
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
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.

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