10/11/2012 12:36 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

National College Affordability Week Should Frame Tonight's Debate

This is National College Affordability Week. The phrase itself seems nearly oxymoronic nowadays. Tuition continues to rise while our investments in education continue to fall. Nearly all sensible people agree on the need to advance our educational pursuits, yet our system has made it nearly impossible to do so without amassing staggering amounts of debt.

On the state and national level, Democrats have taken a pro-education position -- advocating for accessible financial aid, creative methods to keep college costs down, investments in our public education system, and a commitment to ensuring our children receive an education that allows them to compete with the fastest-growing economies across the globe. On the other hand, Republicans have become the anti-education party -- slashing funds for education to pay for corporate tax giveaways, ignoring the struggles of young people aspiring to a brighter future and disinvesting from our institutions of learning.

Here in Michigan, Republicans in the state capitol have raided the School Aid Fund, essentially stealing money promised to children, to fund massive corporate welfare programs. Even worse, their trickle-down economic strategy has led to an increase in Michigan's unemployment rate while the rest of the nation has seen consistent job growth. On the other hand, Michigan Senate Democrats have championed a common-sense plan, called Michigan 2020, which my colleague, Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer outlined in a DailyKos piece earlier this week. The contrast could not be clearer.

As GOP Vice Presidential nominee, Paul Ryan debates Vice President Joe Biden tonight, I hope he will have to answer for his own destructive policy proposals regarding education. The ideas he put forth in the "Ryan Budget" -- which Mitt Romney has of course attempted to distance himself from since choosing Ryan as his running mate -- lays out a vision of education in America where the haves enjoy increased access and the have-nots can look forward to a life devoid of opportunities to advance their education.

Ryan's proposed cuts to discretionary spending in the federal budget would devastate educational programs for people in need everywhere. Estimates have suggested that several billion dollars would be cut from both special education programs and Title I funds for low-income school districts. Pell Grants would be perversely slashed in the number granted each year and the amount a student would receive. A financially-challenged student would lose roughly $1,000 per year through Ryan's Pell Grant cuts. This essentially becomes a tax increase on poor students.

He also calls for eliminating interest subsidies on certain student loans and curtailing the income-based repayment program for college debt. He would also drastically cut federal funding for some of the world's best research institutions, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Institutes of Health.

One of the most fiscally irresponsible proposals put forth by Paul Ryan is his deleterious cuts to early childhood education, specifically Head Start programs. Helen Blank of the National Women's Law Center has said his budget proposal would affect access to Head Start for about 100,000 children. We know early childhood education improves outcomes throughout a child's entire life. Spending money on the front-end allows us to avoid spending much more money in the future on remedial education, social programs and the criminal justice system.

It also must be noted that all of these cuts are put forth without suggesting a single penny be cut from defense spending!

I'll be looking for our Vice President to take it to Paul Ryan on a variety of fronts during tonight's debate. There are certainly enough anti-people, pro-corporate policies embraced by both Ryan and Romney to allow for a robust debate performance on the part of Joe Biden.

In light of National College Affordability Week, though, I hope a vivid contrast is laid out for viewers between the Democratic plan to ensure our nation is competitive around the world for generations to come and the Republican vision of more inequality, less educational access and more corporate profit.

Senator Bert Johnson is a Democrat who represents Michigan's 2nd District, which includes northeast Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and the five Grosse Pointe Communities. Connect with him on social media at and He can be reached at and 1-866-585-7802.