MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up: Why did the Oscar-winning filmmaker of "The Hobbit" devote his time, money and moviemaking skills to an entirely different project about a long-ago crime in Arkansas? We'll speak with Peter Jackson and one of the men featured in a new documentary "West of Memphis." That's in just a few minutes.
But first, we've been preoccupied with the country's fiscal issues, but now, as we look ahead to the New Year, we want to focus on what 2013 could mean for other important issues facing the country. Today we want to talk about education. Joining us for that is NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez.
Happy New Year.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Happy New Year, Michel. Good to be with you.
MARTIN: I understand that one of the biggest changes you see coming to American education is actually because of changes to immigration policy. You think that the president's deferred action plan - and that's aimed at helping undocumented immigrants stay in the country legally, that's children who were brought here as children are now adults - how do you see that affecting who goes to college?
SANCHEZ: This is going to be, I think, an incredible, important issue, not just for that population, but because of the demographics, for states all over the country. There are, after all, two million young people who could benefit from this. President Obama's signing the executive order that gives these people some respite. It means that these people are now flocking to immigration centers, to immigration attorneys to get that reprieve. And we're going to see in some states - California and Texas, Florida, certainly - a huge push to get some of these young people into college.
Now, there is also a big question as to whether the long-term - and what I mean by that, whether Congress will resolve this legally. I mean, what the president has done is essentially given these young people a little bit of time. But ultimately, the answer to this question is going to be resolved by the Congress and the Obama administration.
MARTIN: But your argument is that because these kids have the opportunity to normalize their status - at least get a reprieve - kids who did not previously see a reason to go to college probably now will.
SANCHEZ: Exactly. And that is, I think, the tip of the larger conversation about immigration reform, which I think is, again, the long-term.
MARTIN: Focusing on education, though, some 13 states - the latest being Maryland and Massachusetts - have now adopted policies that allow some undocumented students to get that financial aid that you were talking about, or in-state tuition rates at some public colleges and universities. Taking it a step further, the University of California, Berkeley has announced a $1 million scholarship fund for undocumented students. Are they the only people doing this? And what's been the reaction to this? Because you can see arguments on both sides.
SANCHEZ: I think in California, where this issue is very volatile, I think that what the UC Berkeley folks did is important. I don't see it happening anywhere else, though. We're not hearing other institutions talk about this. I mean, this is, after all, a time when institutions are very hard-pressed to raise any kind of money. And I think if they're perceived as helping this population in particular, they stand the risk of some backlash. I mean, there are many, many young people who can't afford to go to college these days. Costs and affordability and access is a big issue in higher education, and that's why think it's going to be a big issue over all.
MARTIN: Well, what was their argument for why they felt that this particular step was the right step at this particular time, if only for them?
SANCHEZ: I don't know why UC Berkeley did this. It was the only school in the UC system that did it, so it's unclear to me. But I've not heard any backlash yet to this. I just think that people are being very wary of opening the door too wide. And as far as states doing this, that really is another - the next shoe to drop. I mean, states that have waited for some kind of resolution are saying, well, we need to do this on our own. And whether that trumps federal policy at some point - it already is, because Maryland, Massachusetts and at least 11 other states are doing it already.
MARTIN: Talk a little bit, if you would, about Pell Grants. In the past four years, the Obama administration has been aggressive about promoting Pell Grants as a way to address the issue of opportunities that you were just talking about for people who are increasingly financially squeezed. So what about that?
SANCHEZ: Pell Grants are in trouble because the demand is so huge now. I mean, this program was created in 1972. It's the single-biggest federal financial aid program for low-income college students. The maximum award is about $5,500 a year, although the average is closer to $3,800. But it only covers about a third of the total cost at a public four-year school.
Still, it is really the only way some people can afford college, certainly poor students. Today, there's nearly 10 million undergraduates - that's out of about 16-and-a-half million - attending two and four-year schools with a Pell Grant. And the surprising thing is that most of these recipients - 60 percent of them - are not young people going to college after high school. They are considerably older students who've come back to school. They've been hit hard by the job losses, and they've come back to school for more training and education. So it's not young people. It's really people in their mid-20s, up to mid-30s, who really need this kind of help.
MARTIN: So you're saying that there's a possibility of a real drought, I guess, for college funds.
SANCHEZ: Well, here's what the Obama administration - and, in fact, during the presidential campaign, the big issue on this question of the Pell Grants was that these needed to be refocused, meaning that only the neediest students would be eligible. Right now, you're eligible for a Pell Grant if your total family income is no more than $50,000. Some people say that's too high. So what people are talking about now - and I'm assuming that the Obama administration is going to have to consider this - is bringing that number down and essentially cutting off a lot of people who need the money because, you know, there's only so much money for the growing demand on Pell Grants.
MARTIN: I have a related question. The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys is warning that a quote-unquote "student debt bomb" is going to hit the economy soon. Why are they saying that?
SANCHEZ: Because people are borrowing more and more to be able to pay for college. Remember that state cuts in higher education have been enormous, on average 25 to 30 percent in most states. And the fact that students have had to borrow more - not just from the government, but from private lenders - means that there is over a trillion dollars in student debt out there, and that's going to continue to go up. And so will the default rates. We're already seeing the default rates go up. This debt bomb that the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys is talking about is akin to what some consider the home mortgage crisis, and that's pretty scary.
In 2013, I think we're going to begin to see a greater and greater concern. How or if lawmakers can resolve this, I'm not sure, but clearly, this is a problem that is right around the corner.
MARTIN: We're looking ahead at what our guest believes will be the top education issues of 2013. We're talking with NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez.
Now, we've been spending a lot of time talking about higher education. Let's talk about K through 12. You are saying that the traditional vision of public schools is going away, and that that's going to be replaced by a hybrid system. What do you mean by that?
SANCHEZ: A hybrid system is already here. The hybrid school system that I think about is one where the traditional public school - the one right down the street or around the corner - has to offer students an alternative if that school is failing. And this is spearheaded, really, by the growth of charter schools, charter schools being the publicly funded, privately run, in many cases, often for-profit schools that have just blossomed just about everywhere. Forty-one states, two million students, over 60,000 charter schools are now up and running. And these are huge numbers for a movement that began 20 years ago.
And in cities like Washington, D.C. - where now, almost 40 percent of kids are attending charter schools - that's been an enormous thing. That's created a parallel school system, in many ways, that is directly competing with public schools. And public schools have been forced to rethink how they're doing things, because they've seen at least the successful charter schools attract a huge number of people, even though most of these successful schools have waiting lists. I mean, the dynamics of public education have changed forever.
MARTIN: What do we know about who will be taking leadership on education issues in a second Obama term? Is the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has he said anything about his plans?
SANCHEZ: The Obama administration has been very low-key about what its plans are. There is no moon shot in 2013 on education. On the other hand, the federal government has established itself, certainly, as a powerbroker in creating better schools, attracting better people to teaching. So it's well-established. Its authority is there.
What I think has now shifted and will continue to shift is returning the power of education reform to the states - namely, to legislatures and to governors. And we're going to see that play out in 2013 - by that, I mean that, you know, the move to adopt the so-called common core standards, a national - who would've thought? I mean, 10 years ago, the discussion of national standards was just not something on the horizon, and yet here we are with governors and legislatures leading the way on creating the kind of standards that allow people to compare kids' performance from one end of the country to the other. And that is going to be an important move, and legislatures and governors are going to be very much in the middle of it.
MARTIN: And what about the role that parents are playing in education and are expected to play in the year ahead? You know, we hear wildly contradictory things about that. On the one hand, we keep hearing that parents are in charge, you know, and parents are really driving this train and their dissatisfaction with schools is driving this. On the other hand, sometimes it seems that parents really have very little to say about what goes on in schools. So what do you see in that area?
SANCHEZ: I see a huge story developing on the parent's front. Now there's something called the parent trigger, and it was a law that first came out of California. This is a law that exists in several versions in seven states, but at least 20 legislatures are likely to consider it in 2013 and beyond. What this law says is that if 50 percent of parents in a failing school are upset and want to see changes, dramatic changes - whether that means a takeover of the school, firing half or more of the staff, or simply turning a school into a charter school - these are options that are now on the table.
In California, that's been a nasty fight. It started in Compton, California. That didn't work because the effort to get these parents organized backfired. It was led by an organization - a million-dollar-run organization called Parent Revolution, run by a former Clinton administration adviser. And these are folks who are saying it's time for parents to have real power, to rethink and to re-create the kinds of schools that they would like to see.
The one place where it has succeeded - and we just did a story about this - was in Adelanto, California, where mostly immigrant parents, many of them undocumented, essentially took over their school. And in the fall this year, they're going to open a charter school. But it created such a bitter division, that the warning from skeptics about whether this is the answer or not in terms of getting parents involved is that the danger here is that you poison the environment so much that you can never reconcile parents in a community, those who are opposed to this idea or those who want to see dramatic changes. But it has created the possibility of parents having enormous power, much more clout, if they're organized.
MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Claudio, thank you for your contributions to our reporting so far. We look forward to more conversations in 2013. Thank you for joining us.
SANCHEZ: Great to be with you. Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.