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’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.