Chancellor Obama and the "National Skills College"

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.

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."

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.

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Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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