President Obama pitched his plan for two free years of community college to a raucous crowd of students and Democratic officials during a Friday stop on Ivy Tech Community College’s campus—even as Republicans insist they’re not interested.
The 10-year, $60 billion plan is a key part of Obama’s latest push—started in his State of the Union speech last month—to sell an economic plan that has energized his party’s faithful, but is likely dead on arrival in the Republican-dominated Congress.
On the heels of stops in deep-red Idaho and Kansas, Friday’s visit to the Indianapolis campus of the state’s largest community college system was the seventh the president has made to Indiana since the state’s nine electoral votes helped sweep him into the White House in 2008.
But in the six years since, Republicans have come to dominate both the state’s government and its congressional delegation. And true to form, top Indiana policymakers said they want Obama to butt out of higher education funding altogether.
“I think it’s the last thing the federal government ought to be getting involved in,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said the day before the president arrived. “It’s a state issue; and of course we have a variety of opportunities and encouragements for folks who want to improve their education.”
Senate President Pro Tem David Long also lambasted Obama’s effort to garner support for his college plan in the Hoosier state. “I think the president is doing this more for politics than generally believing it’ll happen,” Long said.
Higher education funding “should come from the state and not the federal government,” he said. “The state needs to control its own laws and regulations and rules and decide what’s best for Hoosiers. We don’t need the federal government telling us how to do that anymore than they already are.”
Ironically, Obama praised the bipartisan nature of the Indiana legislature—where Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers—and urged Congress to adopt that same attitude.
“Here in Indiana, we haven’t been so worried about Democrat-Republican,” the president said. “We focused more on trying to get the job done. And that attitude we’re hoping to kind of infect Washington with.”
But those comments come as Republican and Democrats in Indiana are battling fiercely over education, from pre-school through adult learning.
Republicans are trying to strip Glenda Ritz, the Indiana schools chief and only Democratic statewide elected official, of power. The parties are also split on the use of publicly-funded private school vouchers and GOP leaders have dismissed Democratic calls for free textbooks for all Hoosier students.
Hoosier Democrats support the president’s efforts to give free community college to students who meet certain criteria—and are even offering similar provisions in Indiana.
But Republicans haven’t bought in so far. Senate Bill 513, authored by Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, is similar is some sense to Obama’s community college proposal, and would establish a scholarship program to give certain high school seniors free community college or technical school tuition.
But that bill is going nowhere in the state Senate Education and Career Development Committee, its chairman, Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said through a spokesman. Indiana Higher Education Commissioner Teresa Lubbers said she has mixed feelings about Obama’s proposal, saying Indiana’s college students already have enough financial aid available to cover community college tuition, but the “imperative” the president ‘s plan is addressing is fitting for the current importance placed on higher education in the nation.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who greeted Obama on the tarmac Friday at the Indianapolis International Airport, also denounced the president’s college plan, citing the state’s recent efforts to provide affordable higher education and said “the best way to increase graduation rates is to make sure our students are academically prepare for college” and graduate on time.
Obama has already backed off one of his proposed funding mechanisms to pay for the community college proposal: taxes on the 529 College Savings Plan.
Those changes, he said Friday, weren’t “worth it.”
The president also fielded a question from an audience member wondering if the value of a community college degree would drop if it were to be made available to everyone.
“Absolutely not,” Obama said. “I’ve been asked this question before. I don’t know where this is coming from. The issue is not how much money you’re paying, the issue is what kind of education is it providing you.”
Obama wrapped up his conversation at Ivy Tech by circling back to the lack of bipartisanship he said is currently happening in Congress—calling out House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“And if, as I said before, Republicans in Congress—Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and the leadership there,” the president said. “If they disagree with how I’m paying for a bigger child care tax credit, if they disagree with how I plan to pay for infrastructure, if they don’t want to close loopholes on the top 1 percent… if they don’t want to do it that way, then they should show me another way.”