Education News

A conversation with U.S. Senator and education champion Debbie Stabenow, Michigan

by Mary Ellen Flannery

Debbie Stabenow, U.S. Senator from Michigan since 2000, recently took the time to answer several education related questions from You co-sponsored a bill, recently signed into law by President Obama, to freeze student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent, saving more than 300,000 Michigan students from an even bigger student-debt load. Why was this piece of legislation such an important issue for you? And what else do you think Congress should do to help make college more affordable?

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Senator Stabenow: College is so important if our young people are going to get ahead in the economy of the future. But for too many Michigan families, the rising cost of college is putting that future out of reach. That is why it was so outrageous that Republicans in Congress would allow the interest rates on federal student loans to double at a time when tuition is at an all-time high. Our young people are already graduating under a mountain of debt. I am pleased we were able to overcome the opposition and keep interest rates low. I’m also proud of the changes we made to make additional funds available for Pell Grants by eliminating subsidized loans through banks, focusing on direct student loans, and freeing up $8 billion to increase Pell Grants. Michigan is one of 24 states that has received a waiver to key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), giving teachers and school administrators a little more flexibility to deliver quality instruction to Michigan students and Michigan can set its own goals for improvement. What would you like to see happen in the reauthorization of NCLB?

Senator Stabenow: There is nothing more important than the education of our children, and we need our education policies to reflect that. No Child Left Behind was never funded properly, and our teachers never got the support they needed to help our children meet higher achievement goals. That is why I have been working with Michigan parents, teachers, school administrators, and community leaders to develop the best approach to improving our schools. Michigan’s waiver was necessary, but it is not a long-term solution to the problem. We need to lower class sizes and lift up our teachers with support and professional development so they have the flexibility to teach effectively. Last year, the federal Community College and Career Training Grant Program awarded $500 million in grants, including money to Alpena Community College to develop job-training programs in green energy. How do you see Michigan community colleges—and job training programs like these—fitting into Michigan’s economic recovery?

Senator Stabenow: We have so many smart, hard-working people in Michigan who need jobs and want to work – but they lack the specific job skills needed in today’s economy. Our community colleges and job training programs are absolutely critical to bridging the skills gap. Michigan is now leading the country in clean energy patents and our community colleges are leading the way with innovative job training programs. For example, Delta College has created the Fast Start training program to train workers in advanced battery technology and solar manufacturing and Kalamazoo Community College has built a program to train workers to build and maintain wind turbines. These efforts and so many others are helping Michigan businesses hire workers for the jobs of the future. In 2012, state funding for Michigan’s public institutions of higher education dropped 12 percent. Those kinds of cuts lead to higher tuition, program closures, and faculty and staff layoffs. How do you think we can address these issues?

Senator Stabenow: It is tragic that rising tuition and budget cuts are putting college out of reach for so many Michigan students. Higher education is an investment in our future that pays off in higher wages, more opportunities, and more jobs in our state. That’s why at the federal level I fought successfully to keep student loan interest rates low, increase the maximum Pell grant students can receive, end wasteful subsidies to banks in the student loan system, and make the federal financial aid system easier for students to use. The federal government also plays a key role in research funding and job training funding for university and community colleges that creates opportunities for students. At both the state and federal levels, we have to keep finding ways to expand access to college and keep tuition costs down. Last year, you introduced the Reengaging Americans in Serious Education Act, which would direct the Secretary of Labor to award grants to programs that help “disconnected youth” get diplomas, degrees, and job certifications. Is this an issue you’re going to continue to push forward? Can you describe the students you have in mind, and how their success would help our communities?

Senator Stabenow: This effort is so important for young people who made a decision for whatever reason to drop out of school and who now want to get their education back on track. We know that there are as many as 3.1 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 who have left school without a diploma or a GED. The RAISE UP Act would coordinate our community efforts to help young people re-engage in school and get connected to the resources they need to get back in school and get their diploma.

Senator Stabenow hold a press conference in support of the Bring Jobs Home Act We know you’ve also been talking a lot lately about the Bring Home Jobs Act, which you have authored. Can you tell our members briefly what this bill would mean for their families and students?

Senator Stabenow: Over the last decade, companies shipped 2.4 million jobs overseas, and outrageously, American taxpayers were asked to help foot the bill! Right now, companies can get a tax deduction for the moving expenses they incur when sending jobs overseas. The Bring Jobs Home Act is simple.  It stops these tax breaks for packing up our jobs and shipping them away, but allows companies to get that deduction for the cost of bringing jobs back to the U.S. And it gives them an additional tax cut on top of that for bringing jobs home. We all want companies to bring jobs back to America, and our tax code shouldn’t be standing in the way.  The bottom line is: we need to be exporting our products, not our jobs! Collective bargaining rights for public and private employees continue to face attacks across the country, including in Michigan. How do you view the relationship between unions and their communities?

Senator Stabenow: If we want our young people to succeed, we should be lifting our educators up, not tearing them down. The labor movement is part of Michigan’s heritage that helped build and sustain the middle-class. I proudly stand in support of your right to organize and collectively bargain. The labor movement has helped improve the lives of every Michigan family with better job security, higher wages, better workplace safety, better benefits, and overtime pay – just to name a few. We know from our history that when we work together and cooperate, we get much better results for everyone. I believe the same should be happening today. Tell us about a teacher who made an impact on you.

Senator Stabenow: I had so many wonderful teachers who were inspirations to me and taught me the value of giving back and never giving up. Music has especially been important to me, and I remember my high school band director, Mr. Conley, who knew how to encourage us and challenge us to do the very best we could. I also remember Mr. Wolf, my high school civics teacher who had a great way of teaching that made government sound interesting and meaningful.

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