Fighting for students, fighting with students

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The tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has forced a national reckoning. The images of that fateful day continue to haunt me, and sweeping regulations on gun purchases and use are long overdue.

But the shooting and its aftermath are about something more than guns. The past few weeks have reinforced one of my deepest beliefs, which inspired me to commit my life to public service in the first place: young people are the vanguard of progress.

Facing the most horrific circumstances, these brave students did not yield to despair. Instead, they made change.

Yet our country is failing these students and millions of their peers. At a time when a college degree is more valuable than ever, student loan debt is crippling a whole generation. Tuition for higher education is ballooning, and there are 44 million Americans who have a combined $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. We cannot afford to abandon these students and let them face the burden alone.

State and local action is all the more critical because our national leaders care more about pleasing out-of-touch donors than helping everyday students. Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, believes there should be no education department; she has said that “government sucks.” Her only qualification for the position was her family fortune. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, DeVos said, “We have invested billions and billions and billions of dollars from the federal level, and we have seen zero results.”

DeVos sees no results because she is not looking — and because she never went to public school or sent her children to one.

The rest of us understand the importance of public education. I went to public school here in New Haven, and I taught social studies at Lincoln Basset School, serving as the dean of students. Whereas DeVos said she has “not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming,” I have devoted my life, as a teacher and a public servant, to serving all students, no matter their income, race, or background. Unlike DeVos and her billionaire backers, I’m not satisfied letting underprivileged students slip through the cracks.

But DeVos is not just ignorant. She is actively dangerous for the future of education.

Quickly after assuming office, she overturned the Obama administration’s policies to help struggling borrowers of student loans. In the Obama years, the government favored student debt collection companies that had the lowest rates of loan defaults. DeVos ripped that protection away from students and gave a boost to companies that punish borrowers.

If Washington won’t defend our students, Connecticut and New Haven must stand up for them instead. Three years ago, I led a coalition on the Board of Alders advocating for the adoption of a Student Loan Bill of Rights in Connecticut. With DeVos wreaking havoc, the fight must continue.

House Bill 5371, which had a public hearing on March 8, is a great start. It would simultaneously help students get already available federal aid — at no cost to Connecticut — and commit state aid to students at state and community colleges who still need financial assistance.

High school students who graduated in 2017 forfeited more than $2.3 billion in grant money, simply because they did not apply for it. For many families, the prospect of financing higher education seems too unrealistic to even consider it. HB5371 would change that by requiring all students to file an application for aid, opening doors that seemed closed to many lower-income students.

Investing in education is a no-brainer. The vast majority of jobs that are being created right now are for college graduates. When students succumb to debt, we all lose out on their contributions to the economy.

This is especially important for Connecticut, which has been struggling to keep talented young people in the state. New York and Rhode Island both have programs similar to the one proposed in HB5371, and our state economy cannot afford to fall behind. Easing the burden of student loans is economic common sense.

It is a cliché to say that the students of today are the leaders of tomorrow. In fact, the students of today are the leaders of today. The example of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School taught us as much.

When we fail our students, we fail ourselves. Our next steps on student loans and the cost of college will speak volumes about our commitment to preserving the transformative, change-making power of education.

What do you think?

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