First Person

Commentary: ASSET bill is morally, fiscally sound

This commentary was submitted by Moira Cullen, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Senate Bill 12-015, the ASSET Bill, has its first committee hearing this Thursday, January 26th.  The bill enables Colorado high school graduates — regardless of their immigration status — to attend the state’s colleges and universities at a cost between in-state tuition paid by other residents and tuition paid by students from outside Colorado.

State senators Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Mike Johnston, D-Denver, key sponsors of the ASSET bill, respond to reporters' questions Wednesday.
State senators Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Mike Johnston, D-Denver, key sponsors of the 2011 ASSET bill, respond to reporters' questions last February.

Immigration is one of the cultural third rails of our times: Just about no one of any political party will defend current immigration policy.  Rightly so. Let’s all agree that immigration policy is a huge mess that has resisted the few sincere attempts to try to fix it.

But in this burst of honesty, let’s also admit that anything that touches the third rail of immigration is an issue where emotion too often clouds judgment.  And clear-eyed judgment strongly suggests that this is a bill that should be passed.

To start, let’s be clear about what is not in the bill: Taxpayer subsidies. Under the ASSET bill, undocumented students will pay both their share and the state’s share.  There is zero cost to Colorado’s taxpayers, and an additional cost to the undocumented students – who will pay on average about 40 percent more than traditional in-state tuition.  The cost of college for undocumented students is neither free nor subsidized.

Let’s also remember the bill’s focus: Students already in the U.S., — usually entering no later than 12 or 13 years of age, and often far earlier —  who have completed high school and both want and are academically prepared to go to college.  They have not dropped out of school; they do not have criminal records.  Many came here as young kids.  Some arrived as infants.  None of them – not one – made the decision to enter this country illegally.  Think what you will, but recognize that the decision to come to the U.S. was made for them, not by them.

No other children are punished for their parents’ “crimes”

Think that their parents are criminals for this choice?  OK then.  We can debate the appropriate punishment for parents who have broken the law to give their families a better life.  But what we can’t really debate is this: For no other crime committed by parents do we punish their children.  Not one.  Adults do some terrible things, and we do not diminish the rights of their children because of this conduct.  Children of convicted thieves, perjurers, Wall-Street embezzlers, and serial murderers all get to vote, drive, move freely about the country, and pay in-state tuition.

Say what you might about parents who cross a country’s borders without permission, but on the scale of criminal deeds, it isn’t going to get featured on CSI.  Nor will you see pictures of these transgressing parents in the post office. So whatever one may think of immigration, it is a unique and uncharitable notion that we punish children – most of them who have spent more of their lives in this country than any other – for the decisions of their parents.

Now, if the moral argument here still leaves you cold, let’s appeal to the other side of the torso: Your wallet.

Currently, undocumented students are required by federal law to have full access to public K-12 education.  To keep the math easy, let’s assume the average undocumented student attends six years of K-12 education.  Let’s also conservatively say that the marginal cost per year for each student is about $8,000.  So we are spending roughly $50,000 on each undocumented student who graduates from a public high school.

What is the value of a college degree? A recent study at Georgetown University found that “over a lifetime, a bachelors degree is worth $2.8 million, on average.”  What happens to that $2.8 million?  It is taxed.  Let’s assume even at a relatively low rate of 25 percent.  Using simple math, that’s $700,000 in lost taxes over a lifetime.  And realize that as income grows, spending increases, and a college graduate is going to both pay more in sales tax and purchase more goods and services. And cost far less in social welfare.

A strong, economic rationale for higher education access

So, time value of money aside, we invest somewhere around $50,000 in K-12 education for a kid who wants nothing more than to go get a college degree so that they can live well enough to pay, on average, $650,000 back into the public coffers.  Is the right economic decision here to prevent this kid from attending college?

Colorado, often a bastion of independent thought, is well behind this curve.  Thirteen states – including Texas – understand that there is an economic rationale to allowing undocumented high school graduates in-state tuition and access to their state colleges.

Colorado’s K-12 education policy is currently focused on reducing the dropout rate and getting all kids ready for college.  Policy contradictions are nothing new, but it staggers the mind to think Colorado will, with one legislative hand spend increasing sums of money to get kids prepared for college, only to have the other hand deny them the opportunity to attend – and pay 40 percent more in tuition than other in-state students.

SB12-015 was introduced by Colorado’s leading education reform Democrat, Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston along with Senators Angela Giron, Lucia Guzman and Pat Steadman, and House sponsors Representative Crisanta Duran and Angela Williams.

Both Governor John Hickenlooper (D) and House Speaker Frank McNulty (R) opened the 2012 legislative session with a commitment to create jobs and further our state’s economic development.    Let’s hope that the legislature can ignore the emotional baggage of adult immigration to both act rationally and improve our future tax revenues by focusing on kids.  SB12-015 will not cost Colorado a dime, and it will lead to both better lives and better economics.  There are no losers.

Democrats for Education Reform is strongly supporting SB 12-015 because the reality is that it is not just the students who benefit. No matter if you feel this in your heart or in your wallet, who benefits is clear. We all do.

To learn more about SB 015 and how you can join the effort to support it, please visit

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.