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Renowned education expert Kevin Kumashiro says the plans put forth by two of the leading Democratic presidential candidates are a step in the right direction, but America’s fundamentally broken education system needs to be radically changed from top to bottom

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JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Cancel all student debt, or just the first 50 grand?

BERNIE SANDERS: Bottom line is we should not be punishing people for getting a higher education. It is time to hit the reset button. Under the proposal that we introduce today, all student debt would be cancelled in six months. We will make a full and complete education a human right in America to which all of our people are entitled. This means making public colleges, universities, and HBCUs tuition free and debt free by tripling the work study program, expanding Pell grants, and other financial incentives. The American people bailed out Wall Street. Now it is time for Wall Street to come to the aid of the middle class of this country.

ELIZABETH WARREN: We’re crushing an entire generation with student loan debt, and the consequences are everywhere. Young people can’t buy homes. They can’t start businesses. No country builds a future by crushing the dreams and hopes of its young people. That’s why I’m calling for universal free college and the cancellation of student loan debt of up to $50,000 for 42 million Americans. My plan would wipe out student loan debt entirely for about 75 percent of those with debt. It will help close the racial wealth gap, and it will provide an enormous economic boost to America’s middle class.

JAISAL NOOR: A plan put forth by Rep. Ilhan Omar and Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would wipe out the entire $1.6 trillion dollars in student debt. The plan is funded through a tax on Wall Street which would raise about $2.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, rival Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed canceling $50,000 in student loan debt for anyone with a household income under $100,000 and give a substantial cancellation to those making between $100,000-$250,000. She’ll pay for it by taxing wealthy families and corporations. America has the world’s most expensive universities, and the average student graduates in almost $30,000 of debt. By contrast, many European countries offer free or relatively cheap higher education. Meanwhile, frontrunner Joe Biden is among those backing free community college for everyone.

Well, joining us to discuss this is Kevin Kumashiro. He’s an internationally known expert on education policy, former dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, and award-winning author of 10 books. Thanks so much for joining us.

KEVIN KUMASHIRO: Thanks so much for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: So let’s start off by what critics of both plans say. They say, you know, the plan is not fair to those who’ve already paid off their debt, and it wouldn’t help those who accumulate debt in the future. You know, both Sanders and Warren support free public universities. But you know, critics say the majority of debt is accumulated at private universities and graduate schools, so this wouldn’t really solve the problem, is what critics say. What’s your response?

KEVIN KUMASHIRO: I think that it’s, you know, the notion that we should be canceling student debt I think moves us in the right direction, right? It sort of is saying that there’s over $1.6 trillion dollars in debt, and it’s affecting about 45 million graduates, is really burdensome and harmful, not only to individual livelihood, but also to the collective, to kind of societal and economic health. I would agree, however, that it actually doesn’t go far enough.

You know, one of the problems with a lot of conversations about how we make college more accessible or affordable is it still buys into the story that education is a commodity that can be bought by those who have the wealth and the resources to do so. I’m actually really swayed by the idea that we need to reframe the debate entirely. It’s not about how we make college more affordable. It’s how we make education, from preschool all the way through our university, a human and fundamental right that we–because we know that education is so vital to one’s ability to succeed, but also to the strength of an economy and a nation. And so that’s the kind of direction that I think the conversation needs to be moving, and I hope that this is only the opening volley in that debate.

JAISAL NOOR: So you’ve said that you favor Sanders’s proposal. But critics of that say canceling all debt, instead of the first $50,000 like Warren has proposed, will disproportionately help the rich. How do you respond to those arguments?

KEVIN KUMASHIRO: Yeah. I think that–again, I think we can debate how we begin to make college accessible to everyone. But really if we’re still debating how much assistance different groups of people get, we’re still locking ourselves into the notion that college is something that we should treat as a commodity, something that those with the resources should be able to afford. I actually think we need to reframe that conversation. We actually need to be talking about how do we fund education so that it is accessible to everyone.

So yeah, we can kind of debate the logistics of how we move in that direction. But I actually think that debating who gets access is maybe the much bigger question. How do we make college accessible and available to everyone? You know, the problem with education, I think, is that we sometimes forget the history of how these institutions were created in the first place. Public education, both K-12, elementary, and secondary schools, and higher education, was actually never created for everyone in the first place. We created public education for only the most elite in society. And as we were forced to integrate more and more, we just came up with more and more ways to divide and sort them, such as through segregated education, through tracked classrooms, through labeling discipline and disenfranchisement.

You know, the notion of education is inaccessible, the notion that achievement is highly differentiated, is not merely a sign that schools are failing. It’s actually a sign that schools, in some ways, are succeeding; that they’re accomplishing exactly what they’re set up to accomplish. Institutions have a long legacy of being very inequitable. So it’s not about making access equitable, it’s actually about changing the system. We’re not about–we shouldn’t simply make it easier for individuals to enter the system as it is what we actually need to be talking about how we change the entire system of education so that it better serves everyone in society. And I think that’s the larger question that sometimes gets lost when we debate the minutia or the details of policy proposals.

JAISAL NOOR: So talk more about what you propose as a solution to this crisis of education in this country.

KEVIN KUMASHIRO: Yeah. I’m really swayed by the idea that education from kindergarten through university must be a human right for everyone. It needs to be something that is available and accessible. And for those who want to say that that’s a very expensive enterprise, well, of course it’s a very expensive enterprise. But I think if we as a society were willing to fairly tax the wealthy and the corporations, and if we were willing to put our priorities in our budgets–right, budgets reflect priorities. And you can invest in kind of the future and the wellness of society. You can also invest in instruments of violence and harm, like prisons, war, and the military. I mean, I think part of what we need to be asking is where should the money be going? How do we best fund that? And then we can ask, well, how, then, do we build the best educational system that every child should be getting? I’m really swayed by the idea that every child should be able to walk to the neighborhood public school, just like every child, every student, should be able to attend the very best education that our system has to offer.

You know, the the problem with simply tinkering with financial accessibility, like making colleges a little bit more affordable, is it’s saying let’s give equal access to a very inequitable school system and educational system. It’s not the case that all schools are equal, just like it’s not the case that all universities are equal. We have, just like in public schools, with public universities and universities overall we have a small group of institutions that serve the most elite, and then we have the masses, that’s the vast majority of institutions, are grossly underfunded and under-resourced, and they’re the ones that are serving the masses. Public universities tend to get a much more diverse group; much more, many more first generation students, students who are working class, students who are working to put themselves through education. And yet these are the institutions that tend to be grossly underfunded, and these are the ones that then saddle our students with debt.

Let me just give one more historical context, which is we did in the past more fully fund public institutions. It’s really within the past 20 years, which is the same 20 years where we saw the student debt double in this country, it’s also the time when we saw public institutions, the support from tax dollars, being cut literally in half. This–that’s not coincidental. It’s hard to call public universities public when they’re actually–such a small percentage of their budgets are actually coming from the public sector. Where is this shortfall made up? It’s made up primarily by tuition. We ratchet up tuition so that we can make up for the shortfall by the public sector. So who then bears the brunt? It’s the students. And it tends to be the students who cannot afford it in the first place.

It’s why we see so many of the elite, so many of kind of the establishment, the media, the corporations, the wealthy, so attacking this kind of a proposal, because it’s often the elite that benefit the most from the status quo. We should be cheering on the kinds of proposals that rattle the status quo. And I think this conversation about debt relief is one step towards that direction.

JAISAL NOOR: And finally, if you could talk a little bit about the best models that exist internationally. I know that in Maryland they’ve had the Kerwan Commission, which has been looking at best practices in public education around the world. And looking at Europe, a lot of the best models, they sort of start subsidizing education basically at birth, or even before birth, and giving access to things like child care, you know, pre-K starting at three years old, fully funded, subsidized for everybody. And a lot of those countries also offer free higher education. And you know, some countries even will pay you to go to school. They’ll cover everything and they’ll give you money to live off. Is that something that you feel like is the best practice? Or are there other models that will also sort of address this underlying issue of equity that, you know, we obviously are facing in the United States.

KEVIN KUMASHIRO: Yeah. I think there are elements that we can learn from other countries. I think that there are some countries where, for example, we see bad models, right, where higher education might be affordable, but the K12 sector is still so inequitable and differentiated that the sorting happens before people even get to college. So the examples that you’re pointing to where the investment in education starts from the youngest of our students are actually the models that we need to be looking at. How do we strengthen education all the way from preschool through higher education?

And I think, beyond that, we also need to be talking about the many other reforms that overlap with educational improvement. Funding is really only one aspect that we need to be looking at. Right now we’re in a moment in the United States which, by the way, is reflective of reforms all around the world. It’s very neoliberal models of reforms that are all about sort of measurement, discipline, testing, and punish, right. And one of the things that this does is it moves us away from rich curriculums into very test-oriented curriculums that actually dumb down what students are learning in order to perform better on very narrow measures of learning.

And one of the things that I think many people have argued is that if you want to improve education we need to look kind of institutionally and financially. We also need to look at the very content of what it is that we’re teaching. Education should not merely be about narrow skills, or even merely about job preparedness. Education should not be about preparing our next generation to fit into the world as it is. Education should actually be about preparing the next generation to imagine and create the world that does not yet exist. And I think that is again why there are so many people who are so afraid of really seeing revolution happened in education. Education can function really effectively to stabilize the status quo. But if education is done right it can also fuel our imagination to go towards a much better world. And that can be scary and dangerous to some, but that can also be very liberating for most. Those are I think the kinds of deeper questions that we need to be diving into. And I hope that this debate leads us in that direction.

JAISAL NOOR: Well, it seems like today that we’re on the cusp of having those kind of deeper conversations, versus just even a few years ago. And so we’ll definitely keep having this conversation going. Kevin Kumashiro, internationally known expert in education policy, former dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, award-winning author of 10 books. Thank you so much for joining us.

KEVIN KUMASHIRO: Thanks again for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.