How Would Paul Ryan's Vision Change the U.S. Education System?

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Two words: cut and privatize.  615_Ryan_Palo_Verde_High_School_Reuters.jpg

Paul Ryan arrives for a rally at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas. (Reuters)

If you've heard anything about Paul Ryan by now, then you can probably guess his instructions for education reform. Step one: Cut spending. Step two: Use the private sector to drive cost reforms. Say this for the man: He's relentlessly consistent.

Still, unlike Ryan's blueprints for shrinking Medicare and Medicaid -- which have been remarkable for their grisly specificity -- there is a bit of mystery lurking in his education agenda. The spending plans he's spearheaded in the House give us a vague outline of what he would do to public school funding and financial aid for college students were he to ever have his way with the federal budget, but it's tough to attach any hard numbers to his ideas.

This we do know: Ryan's plan makes massive cuts to non-defense "discretionary spending." That includes pretty much everything that isn't an entitlement, including large chunks of education funding. And by assuming Ryan and his GOP allies would spread the pain evenly across federal programs, the Obama administration has produced its own set of numbers detailing what the cuts could mean.

So a few months back, the Education Secretary Arne Duncan argued that the Ryan budget might knock $2.7 billion off the $14.5 billion Washington sends to poor school districts in the form of Title I funding. Special education, he said, could be in for a $2.2 billion reduction, down from $11.6 billion. 

Meanwhile, in April, President Obama warned that Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college, would be slashed by an average of $1,000. That's drastic, considering the current maximum is just $5,500.

As Republicans have been quick to point out, though, these are essentially just guesses. It's entirely possible that the Ryan plan, once in action, would end up sparing some programs and demolishing others to make up for it. Even if the administration has made reasonable assumptions, there just isn't enough information in the budget to calculate the sort of precise figures Obama is touting.

Instead, we're left with hints. When the House passed its latest Ryan-inspired budget resolution, it published an accompanying report that outlined more specific proposals for potential cuts. Much of the focus was on Pell Grants, which, thanks to the recession and Obama's expansion of the program, now cost the government $38 billion a year, and are facing a giant funding shortfall starting in 2015. Rather than let the grants rise with inflation, as they're currently designed to do for a few years, the House report advocated freezing the max award at today's level, tightening the eligibility rules, and changing its funding structure. 

It's not a generous plan, but it's not draconian. Some of the reforms -- such as capping how much a student's family can earn and still qualify for the grants, or requiring recipients to attend school at least half-time -- are worth debating as ways to keep the program focused on low-income students who are somewhat likely graduate. The bigger problem, as the New America Foundation's Jason Delisle has written, is that despite all his cuts and talk about putting Pell Grants on a sustainable path, Ryan's proposal wouldn't actually fix the program's finances. Rather, it would still essentially need an annual bailout from Congress.

The house budget report includes a few other interesting details about funding for K-12 and higher education. It suggests killing the interest subsidies on some student loans and curtailing the income-based repayment program for college debt. It would also streamline some of the 82 programs that deal with teacher quality. 

Again, none of these sound like apocalyptic cuts on their face. But what about the rest of his record? Well, we know he's a big fan of private school vouchers, since last year, he voted to extend the D.C. Opportunity Program -- a longtime political football that once made its way onto the West Wing. We also know he supports for-profit universities. For instance, he opposed the gainful employment rule, which tries to bring a bare minimum of accountability to the sector by denying federal aid to vocational schools whose graduates can't get decent work. 

All of which is to say, Ryan is essentially a mainstream Republican on education issues, not unlike his running mate. On Sunday, he and and Romney held one of their first campaign rallies together at NASCAR Technical Institute, a for-profit college in Moorseville, North Carolina. And in his own education proposal, Romney focused heavily on vouchers, and hinted at slicing the Pell budget. Like most of the modern GOP, they're two men who believe the government needs to move aside and let the private sector handle things. Including teaching. 

 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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