The Obama administration has been garnering laurels for its $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" fund, which promotes sensible measures including charter schooling, alternative teacher licensure, and merit-linked pay. What's astonishing is that, while promoting these efforts to deregulate K-12 schooling, the administration has launched a furtive and worrisome effort that will entail Uncle Sam's becoming a provider of free community college courses.
Inside Higher Ed, a trade publication, has obtained administration discussion drafts that show the Department of Education is planning to use part of a planned $12 billion community-college initiative to fund community colleges and high schools to create free online courses--which would be assessed through a federally administered system and coordinated through a "National Skills College." Draft materials envision the feds funding the development of 20-25 courses a year. The kicker is that these courses would be owned by the government and be offered free to all takers. It's one thing to encourage "open source" provision and online education--it's another thing entirely for the federal government to use taxpayer dollars to undercut providers who must earn their revenues.
There are concerns that the "public option" in the House health-care plan will undercut private providers by using public funds to underprice them, thus strangling competition and making both quality and innovation dependent on the good intentions of bureaucrats. Now, imagine if the public plan were free of charge. How long would it take for private alternatives to wither on the vine? That's what the administration is floating. The Department of Education plan would "modernize" community college by turning distance-based instruction into a federally funded, federally operated monopoly--while doing all this in the name of "innovation." For those who think that the U.S. Department of Education can capably manage an instructional program, coordinate courses, and monitor performance and credentials, this must sound like a swell idea. For those of us worried that this would starve the market and reduce efforts by private providers to leverage the web, this is a disheartening vision.
This move isn't such a surprise given that Martha Kanter, a veteran community-college bureaucrat and champion of open sourcing, is serving as undersecretary of education--the Department of Education's top dog when it comes to higher education. But Obama has long said that he rejects heavy-handed federal dictates when it comes to schools and colleges. Let's hope that someone at the White House merely fell asleep at the switch, and that someone will reel the department back in. Does the president really want to add Chancellor of the "National Skills College" to his growing list of responsibilities?
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.