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By Adam Edelman

As Democratic presidential candidates promote billion-dollar plans to make college free on the campaign trail, affordable higher education advocates across the political spectrum are pushing a simpler approach: Look to the states.

One state in particular — a Southern, reliably Republican one — has risen above the rest, lawmakers, education and policy think tanks told NBC News: Tennessee.

The Volunteer State’s “Tennessee Promise” program, passed in 2014 by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, offers two years of tuition-free community college or technical school to all high school graduates. An expansion of the program adopted in 2017, called “Tennessee Reconnect,” guaranteed two years of free community college or technical school to all adults in Tennessee who didn’t already have a degree or credential.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a press conference at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee, on Dec. 1, 2015, about his plan to grant more autonomy to six public universities in the Tennessee Board of Regents system.Erik Schelzig / AP file

“Regardless of what your politics are, you have to admit that income inequality is an issue. The question is what do we do about it. And I am a firm believer that a robust public education is the key. The great equalizer,” Haslam told NBC News in a recent interview. “If a good education is a requirement to enter the workforce, we have to give more people the opportunity do that.”

How it works

Tennessee’s program is considered a need-based “last dollar” scholarship, meaning that, after all other aid (including federal grants and scholarships) is factored in, the funding covers the remaining balance for tuition and mandatory fees. The program is available to all high school graduates, regardless of income status, and provides every student with a mentor to guide them through the application, financial aid and enrollment process. It also requires that all students complete eight hours of community service each semester, measures supporters say provide some accountability.

Tennessee Promise is funded entirely by an endowment that was created from the state’s lottery reserve fund. No tax increases were needed at any point, a crucial draw for state Republicans.

But even more critical to the program’s success was the fact that Haslam, who left office in January, framed it as an economic issue centered on job creation in his state — a strategy top education officials in Tennessee are encouraging national politicians to embrace.

“We needed more Tennesseans with a credential beyond high school,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission — the state’s de facto head of higher education.

The program has drawn plaudits from conservatives — who say that higher education policy is (and should be) governed principally by the states — and progressive groups, who have praised its simplicity and inclusivity.

Could the program work nationwide?

While its “last dollar” nature makes it dependent on available federal aid — which would seem to inherently preclude it from being used as an exact model for a national plan — education experts say many of its chief tenets should still be part of any effort to reform higher education and higher education debt-related policies.

“There’s a real appetite among people to have an education that gets them into the workforce. And a free associate’s degree from a community college is a really amazing route to go,” said Jessie Ulibarri, the executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, a progressive policy shop that helps draw up model state legislation that advances traditionally progressive issues.

“The idea of a free public education has broad appeal,” he added. “The fact that states like Tennessee are finding creative ways to do this shows that this doesn’t have to labeled just a progressive idea.”

Local and national advocates say the program has been wildly successfully thus far, and point to a series of statistics to prove it: Community college enrollment is up, as are overall college attendance, completion and retention rates.

According to data on the program collected by Tennessee state agencies, the FAFSA filing rate, which unlocks key federal aid dollars, rose substantially, too. And overall, student debt in the state has declined. (In 2018, Tennessee had the 10th least amount of average student debt, according to data analyzed by the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success, while the group’s 2015 study showed that Tennessee had the 16th least amount of average student debt).

Tennessee’s achievement, which the Obama administration once cited as an example in its own national push for free community college, has spurred the creation of similar programs in at least a half-dozen other states, such as Oregon and Rhode Island.

Critics, however, have pointed to the fact that Tennessee Promise and programs like it are not explicitly geared toward low-income populations, whose barriers to higher education also include substantial nontuition expenses like food, housing and books. (The Debt-Free College Act, proposed by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and endorsed by 2020 hopefuls Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, is one proponents say best addresses the needs of low-income students, since it would cover nontuition costs like books and living expenses.)

“That is really the area where many of them need additional support, and Tennessee’s plan doesn’t cover that,” Mamie Voight, the vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said.

Advocates acknowledge that, but point out that the process for accessing higher education in the U.S. is so comprehensively flawed that it makes sense to have a need-blind universal program, explaining that simple messaging and the elimination of cumbersome paperwork, or providing assistance with it, attracts the greatest amount of people.

“The way we talk to students — all students — about financial aid just doesn’t work. We assume they know what FAFSA is, what Pell Grants are, but they don’t,” Krause said. “And in devising this program, we knew that if we wanted Tennesseans to go to college, we were going to have fundamentally shock the system and give these kids a streamlined process.”

“Having broad-based programs that expand opportunity for everyone, period, regardless of your financial circumstances, is a really good way to go,” Ulibarri said.

He added that practicality and results matter, too — saying that while he is a fan of broader, more expensive plans being pushed by the likes of Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic candidates should also try to be realistic by focusing on the creation of similar state-level programs.

Proposals like Tennessee’s have been endorsed by 2020 Democrats Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Julián Castro — something that Haslam, despite being a Republican, suggested their competition might want to heed.

“I’m not sure they’re going to listen to me, but I would say, ‘Go look at what is actually happening, and what is actually working,’” he said.

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Trump’s worst enemy as he kicks off his re-election bid may be himself

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — On the surface, Chris Moody and Steve Neal don’t have much in common, except for this: They’re excited about voting for President Donald Trump again in 2020.

Moody, a white 24-year-old day-care worker and recent Marshall University graduate from Charleston, West Virginia, is something of a walking billboard for the president’s re-election. He strolled into the King’s Leaf Cigar Lounge here Saturday wearing a T-Shirt bearing an impressionistic version of Trump’s visage and these words: “If Trump is not your president this is not your country. You are not a tree. Move.”

He is very tapped into a powerful sentiment stoked by Trump and shared by many of his voters — that Trump is under constant and unfair attack from Democrats, the media and establishment forces in Washington.

“I can’t stand the way people talk about him,” Moody said.

Neal, a black 49-year-old automotive finance consultant who uses his sparkling white Lexus to drive Uber routes on the side, said his support for Trump is a source of ribbing inside his family of hard-core Democrats in this Charleston and that he seldom talks about his politics unless he’s asked.

“My vote speaks strong enough for itself,” Neal said.

These two types figure to factor heavily into Trump’s success or failure as he seeks a second term in the presidency that few would have predicted possible when he first descended an escalator at his namesake Manhattan skyscraper four years ago without ever having won a single vote for any office.

Now the undisputed center of the political universe, Trump is set to kick off his re-election campaign Tuesday at Orlando’s Amway Center having redefined the Republican Party, the tenor of American public discourse and perceptions of the country at home and abroad. He’ll do so with the shadow of a possible high-stakes House impeachment looming over his shoulder — a prospect that carries peril for him in its potential to publicize special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings in painful fashion and, conversely, one that offers the hope that he can rally new voters to his side in the name of defending his presidency from overzealous opponents.

Because while Trump has formed the most loyal base of supporters in modern history, he has also alienated and mobilized large swaths of the electorate, from liberal city-dwelling Democrats to ex-Republican suburbanites turned off by his crass manner, hard-line positions on social policy, and views of executive power and nationalism that rattle pillars of Western democratic governance.

The biggest challenge facing Trump on the electoral battlefield is turning the energy of his own base into the kind of wave that brings out new voters. While a big part of that will come down to the efficacy of a cutting-edge data operation focused on adding to his base by finding and turning out supporters who don’t normally vote, some of it will hinge on the evangelism of people like Moody and Neal who were there for him last time.

In that way, Trump may be his own worst enemy.

Neal said he’s pleased with the economy and having “more of a strong arm” on foreign policy. But the “stupid stuff” Trump says makes it so difficult to advocate effectively on his behalf that Neal doesn’t really try.

“The problem is Trump’s whole persona,” he said.

Modern history and more recent polling suggest Trump has little margin for error in a nation sharply and bitterly divided in its political loyalties. Like George W. Bush, Trump managed to win a first term while losing the popular vote, and public and private surveys show that he has his work cut out for him if he is to claim victory again.

In the last week, polls from Fox News and Quinnipiac University have shown Trump trailing a series of Democratic rivals — with former Vice President Joe Biden leading by 10 points and 13 points, respectively.

More troubling, at least from a public relations perspective, the recent reporting of internal Trump polling from March by ABC News and the New York Times showed him behind Biden in nearly every important swing state. Biden held double-digit leads in Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — states that collectively account for more than his margin of victory in 2016 — and NBC reported Sunday that Trump has cut ties to two people who were involved in his polling operations in the aftermath of the data becoming public.

The campaign’s top pollster, Tony Fabrizio, said the numbers amounted to a “worst-case scenario” involving a bad turnout model, suggesting they don’t reflect the actual state of the race.

The modeling is particularly important when it comes to Trump because his strategy is necessarily built around changing the set of people who show up to the polls in 2020 — and he’ll be trying to do that at the same time Democrats are working to counter him both with a surge of their own and by locking down past Trump voters who have been turned off by his presidency to this point.

Trump’s approval rating has been in negative territory for almost the entirety of his presidency, and the most recent tabulation by the number-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight.com pegs it at 42.6 percent. But his allies say he is in great shape as he gears up for the Orlando rally and the race ahead of him.

And Chris Wilson, a veteran Republican pollster and political data analyst, said he doesn’t put much stock in the traditional surveys he’s seeing now because they base their turnout models on recent elections — which may not reflect the reality of 2020 if Trump is successful in targeting and turning out new voters.

“I’m very skeptical of any survey today drawing their sample by asking people whether or not they’re going to vote,” he said. He recently conducted polling, based on voter-data modeling, that showed Trump in much better position — including holding small leads in Florida and Wisconsin — in key swing states.

The other factor that’s impossible to measure right now is the effect of Trump’s campaigning against his eventual Democratic opponent, Wilson said.

“Donald Trump is going to have several months, five or six, to make the nominee entirely unpalatable,” he said.

Trump’s penchant for personal attack may ultimately rally his own base and depress excitement among Democrats, but there’s also a risk that it could have the opposite effect.

After years of Twitter feuds and spoken insults of everyone from world leaders to professional athletes, there’s a bit of a social stigma attached to Trump in certain circles that could make it harder for him to reap the benefits of the full-throated support from his army of partisans.

Moreover, the president’s comportment can alienate voters who are comfortable with his policies.

While that matters less in Moody’s home state of West Virginia and Neal’s South Carolina, where Trump is sure to win handily, it could be a significant factor in the handful of swing states that will determine who sits in the Oval Office come January of 2021.

Tom Oestreich, 64, of Tucson, Ariz., said in an interview with NBC News that he chose Trump because he couldn’t vote for Clinton. He would have voted for former Vice President Joe Biden in 2016 had Biden been the Democratic nominee, he said, but he now sees the Democratic front-runner as “tripping” on the campaign trail and “a little bit too old.”

A self-described moderate Republican, Oestreich said he is leaning toward Trump because of the state of the economy and his handling of foreign policy but is bothered by what he describes as the president sounding like he has “a fifth-grade education.” He’s giving a second look to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“I’m not crazy about Buttigieg, but he’s got a great pedigree, a great resume,” Oestreich said of the Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan War veteran. “If it comes down to the two of them … there’s a very good possibility I could vote for him.”

Democrats believe they have a shot at turning Arizona in their favor for the second time since Harry Truman won it in 1948, in part because Trump carried the state by only three-and-a-half percentage points in 2016 and in part because they captured a Senate race there last year for the first time since 1988.

But as has been the case since early in his first presidential run, Trump can count on unflinching support from a loyal base that is more than willing to take on anyone who stands in his way — whether that means Democrats or wavering Republicans. Many of them cast him as their champion in almost epic terms.

“I think he’s doing good,” Trump voter Kitty Klipstine of Dayton, Ohio, said in an interview for Hardball’s “The Deciders,” which will air on MSNBC at 10 p.m. ET Monday. “It’s just he’s fighting Congress, fighting both parties, really, which is a shame because the Republicans should back him all the way.”

Like Klipstine, Roger Carey of Ankeny, Iowa, is proud of the job Trump has done and sees any shortcomings as a function of the resistance he’s met in Washington.

“I like that he has accomplished the things that he ran on,” Carey said. “I like that he wants to support our borders, guarding our borders. Positive things for the country — would like to see Congress back him, though, and get things done.”

The trick for the president is to convince anyone who agrees with Carey — but didn’t cast a vote for Trump last time around — to back his bid to hold on to the job.

— Maura Barrett reported from Boone, Iowa, and Cal Perry reported from Dayton, Ohio

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Boris Johnson TV debate: Will Boris Johnson be at Tory leadership BBC debate today?

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BORIS JOHNSON did not appear at the first Tory leadership debate on Sunday, but will he be at the BBC debate tonight?

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NBC announces lineup of Democrats for each night of first 2020 debate

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NBC News on Friday announced the lineups of Democratic presidential candidates who are appearing on stage this month on each night of the first debate of the 2020 race.

The first group of 10 appearing on Wednesday, June 26:

  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
  • Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
  • Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii
  • Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro
  • Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee

The second group of 10 appearing on Thursday, June 27:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont
  • Sen. Kamala Harris of California
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana
  • Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado
  • Author Marianne Williamson
  • Rep. Eric Swalwell of California
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
  • Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado.

Where the candidates will stand on stage each night has not yet been determined.

To decide the matchups, candidates’ names were drawn manually at NBC News’ headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. One representative from each of the qualifying campaigns was invited to attend the draw along with officials from the Democratic National Committee. Campaign representatives saw the paper slip with their respective candidate’s name on it before it was folded and placed inside the box.

A representative from NBC News Standards & Practices conducted the draw.

Candidates were divided into two groups: those who polled on average at or above 2 percent through midnight on Wednesday, June 12, and those who polled on average below 2 percent through midnight on Wednesday.

A random draw then took place, to create two separate groupings of 10.

NBC News then designated each grouping to a specific debate night.

DNC chairman Tom Perez told MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson on Friday before the draw that he wanted the committee to avoid grouping lesser-known candidates together on one night and high-profile candidates on the other.

“The purpose of that is to be consistent with our principle of trying to be fair to everybody but also, it gets to the point of your question, so that we have maximum eyeballs both nights,” Perez said.

The determination of the lineups came a day after the DNC announced the 20 candidates who met the threshold to appear on stage for the two-night event. The debate, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo, will take place on June 26 and 27 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami.

After the matchups were announced, candidates who qualified for the debate celebrated on social media and elsewhere, with some hoping for the chance to differentiate themselves to voters.

Gillibrand, for instance, lagged in the polls and struggled up until recently to meet the debate’s individual donor threshold. She released a statement Friday touting her record as President Donald Trump’s “kryptonite.”

“President Trump’s kryptonite is a strong, independent woman who speaks her mind, takes on tough fights for families and women, and has a record of actually getting things done, and that’s exactly what they’ll see from me on the debate stage,” she said. “The debates are the first chance for voters across the country to tune in and compare the ideas of the contenders, and I’m honored to have the opportunity.”

She also told NBC News that the night she’s on “actually doesn’t matter to me, I really admire and enjoy all my colleagues.”

Delaney said in a tweet that he’s looking to spar with his fellow Democrats, particularly Warren, on issues and not “personality.”

“I am pleased to be sharing the debate stage with many strong candidates, particularly Senator Warren who, like me, is talking about new ideas,” he tweeted from his official Twitter account. “I look forward to a debate on issues and solutions, not personality and politics.”

Sanders’ campaign said the Vermont lawmaker is also eager to jump in the ring.

“This is a terrific lineup because there will be a real debate over the key set of choices in this Democratic primary,” said Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir said in a statement. “We look forward to hearing other candidates outline their visions for the country and plans to fully guarantee all people the right to health care, housing, education, a clean environment, and the freedom of basic economic rights.”

The historically large field of candidates includes a slew of U.S. senators, a handful of mayors, a former vice president, longtime legislators and some political novices.

The DNC set two ways for candidates to qualify for the debate — fundraising and polling. To make the stage, candidates needed to have either at least 1 percent support in three qualifying polls, or provide evidence of at least 65,000 unique donors, with a minimum of 200 different donors in at least 20 states.

The debate will air live across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m ET both nights. The debate will also stream online free on NBC News’ digital platforms, including NBCNews.com, MSNBC.com, the NBC News Mobile App and OTT apps, in addition to Telemundo’s digital platforms.

NBC News’ Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Telemundo’s José Diaz-Balart will moderate the debate.



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