These Will Be The Biggest Education Issues Of 2016

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Blake Neff Reporter
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The year 2015 was seismic for education across the board, with titanic clashes over Common Core, campus microaggressions, fraternity misbehavior, No Child Left Behind’s replacement, and more. It will be tough for 2016 to top the past year, but here are five big issues that will almost certainly remain major public concerns:

1. Democrats Pushing Hard For Debt-Free College, And Republicans Responding

2016 is, of course, a presidential election year, and every remaining Democratic candidate has a plan for radically overhauling how college is paid for. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton is touting debt-free public education while also borrowing President Obama’s proposal for free community college. Her chief rival Bernie Sanders has gone even further, putting forth a plan intended to make all public colleges 100 percent tuition-free for everybody, paid for with a tax on Wall Street transactions.

On the Republican side, the only candidate willing to speak at length about college has been Marco Rubio, who has a plan of his own to radically alter the student loan landscape by allowing students to pledge a percentage of their future earnings rather than a fixed amount of money, thereby eliminating some of the risk inherent in loans.

None of these plans will be considered by Congress this year, but they could easily become major talking points on the campaign trail. Whoever the Republican nominee is, they’ll have to respond to the Democratic proposals. Total student debt soared past $1.2 trillion this year and it’s only going up, meaning that education costs are becoming an ever-larger issue on the national political scene. Given their already well-known handicaps with younger voters, Republicans likely can’t afford to ignore this issue if they hope to compete for their votes.

2. Common Core

Common Core proved surprisingly durable in 2015. Following the Republican sweep of the midterm elections, it was widely expected that the shared math and English standards would be repealed and replaced in many if not most Republican-controlled states.

But that didn’t happen. Repeal efforts in Mississippi, both Dakotas, and several other states failed completely. In some states, like Louisiana and Tennessee, efforts at total repeal resulted in compromises to set up commissions to review and suggest amendments to Common Core. In South Carolina, which officially repealed Common Core last year, the replacement standards were attacked by critics as nearly identical, and in North Carolina a commission’s failure to suggest substantial changes has imperiled a repeal effort there.

Common Core, then, is in a significantly better position today than many expected. But it also isn’t out of the woods. In New York, the catastrophically bad reception of new Common Core-aligned standardized tests led to a massive test boycott, and in response Gov. Andrew Cuomo began a process he says will “totally reboot” the standards. Whether that happens or not, New York’s shift is critical, because it shows that Common Core skepticism is now rising among Democrats. That means 2016 could see new efforts to replace it in blue states, and it also means that fresh attempts in Republican states could have greater success. In Republican states, the preservation of Common Core typically relied on united Democratic support combined with a split among Republicans that, overall, produced a pro-Common Core majority. If Democrats become divided as well, Common Core could be dropped by more states.

Common Core may also be more vulnerable following the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which totally overhauls education at the federal level. Among the law’s provisions is a clarification which says the federal government has now power to coerce states in the adoption of school standards, such as Common Core. While this provision eliminates claims that the federal government is forcing states to keep Common Core, it also means any state lawmakers who feared a federal response no longer need to do so.

3. Mizzou: The Aftermath

The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2014, and it was active on university campuses throughout the year, but things only exploded in November, when black-led protests at the University of Missouri toppled president Tim Wolfe from power. Similar protest movements erupted at Princeton University, Dartmouth College, and dozens of other schools.

Most of these protests saw lists of demands submitted by students, ranging from the typical (more black faculty, more financial aid) to the zany (students at Guilford College wanted to force professors to write racism confessions). In an effort to contain the outrage, many schools announced they would consider or even implement some or all of the demands, but classes adjourned before the situation could progress any further.

The big question is: What’s next? Were the furious protests of November a flash in the pan, or merely the prelude to even greater tumult in 2016? It’s impossible to tell at this moment, but it seems doubtful the issue will simply vanish. If students are unhappy with how college administrators handle their demands, it’s likely protests will recur.

4. Another Great Teacher Strike?

After a mere three and a half years of labor peace, Chicago teachers are once again moving towards a major strike in the country’s third-largest school district. Three weeks ago teachers gave leadership approval for a strike, which could come as quickly as March. The teachers are pushing for a hike in pay, smaller classes, and a reversal of an ongoing layoff trend, and with mayor Rahm Emanuel weakened by scandals in the police force, they may be out for blood.

Chicago teachers last struck in 2012, in the midst of the 2012 presidential election campaign, and a rerun of that strike could pose problems for Democrats. Like in 2012, it would pit teachers against the Democratic administration of Rahm Emanuel, exposing continued fissures in the Democratic party between unionized state workers and reformers trying to slash state spending.

Chicago is the largest school district likely to see a strike, but it isn’t the only major city with labor issues. In St. Paul, Minnesota, teachers have started to move towards a strike in response to concerns about school discipline. The district’s policy of strongly discouraging tough punishments like suspensions and expulsions, teachers say, is contributing to an environment where dozens of teachers have been exposed to physical violence.

5. Campus Sexual Assault

The attention on campus sexual assault has slackened a bit at the end of 2015, thanks in large part to the emergence of race-related protests. But the issue still remains a major one, and major developments in 2016 will almost certainly keep it in the public eye.

At Harvard Law School, anti-assault activists have threatened to use Title IX complaints to censor critics who dispute their claims about campus assaults. Should these threats come to pass, a massive free speech dispute could break out at the country’s most high-profile university. Meanwhile, lawsuits by students accused of sexual assault at Amherst CollegeColumbia University and elsewhere continue to work their way through the courts. If the plaintiffs are successful, they could undermine campus policies that critics say allow students to be railroaded through kangaroo courts (or the court of public opinion). If they’re unsuccessful, it could pave the way for colleges to instead assuage activists by becoming even tougher on students accused of assault.

Another source of friction are “affirmative consent” standards for sexual assault, now fully implemented at all publicly-funded colleges in both in California and New York. Many students remain very confused about what this standard means, meaning 2016 could see the first lawsuit by a student claiming they were improperly expelled thanks to this more aggressive standard.

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