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Democrats' Free Tuition Strategy: Unleash Eager Parents Against Reluctant GOP

Rick Stone

President Obama's America's College Promise would provide free community college tuition for two years to students who keep their grades up, stay in school and show progress toward graduation.

As he introduced it this month, the president presented it as a logical extension of the nation's free public school system, updated for the education requirements of the modern economy.

“Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today,” he said during a Jan. 9 appearance in Knoxville, Tenn.

And that's the sound bite South Florida's elected Democrats adopted during a Friday news conference to promote the plan at Miami Dade College.

But cost and partisan politics remain high obstacles. 

"I know we're going to have some opposition from members across the aisle," said State Rep. David Richardson, a Democrat on the state House Appropriations Committee, which would have to sign off on the tuition spending.

As described, the program looks like a bargain for the states. The federal government would pay $60 billion for 10 years while requiring a 25-percent match from participating states. Richardson said it's a funding formula that legislative Republicans have balked at before: The majority has rejected federal Medicaid expansion money with an even smaller required match because of fears that the feds would default and stick the state with the entire cost.

But the state government discussion may be premature. There's no guarantee that the Republican-led Congress will even pass a tuition bill for the states to worry over.

U. S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, at Friday's news conference, said Republican leaders have already come out against "America's College Promise." But she said students and parents -- eager to reduce the cost of education -- may be powerful allies.

"Because of the three-to-one match, because of the opportunity that we have, if we have this advocacy bubble from the grassroots, members of congress will sit up and take notice," Wasserman Schultz said.

South Florida's major community colleges have spread come out in support of the tuition plan. MDC provost Lenore Rodicio said it could provide a yearly benefit of up to $3,800 for approximately 52,000 students.

But, experts say, that's not free education. Books, room and board and transportation are not covered in the president's proposal. It's just the tuition.