Marco Rubio came to Atlanta Monday with a different spin on education, as presidential candidates go. He found a state where the debate is well underway.
While most folks agree something's awry with American schools, the fault line separates those who believe we need to approach education very differently from those who think the primary answer is to put more money into the existing model.
Put Rubio in the former camp. While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders simply promise ever more generous subsidies, he is pitching a two-prong effort to restructure the system for students.
Prong one: Don't wait until students are out of high school before letting them get the vocational training they need to enter the work force.
"If I am blessed with the opportunity to be president, I will celebrate vocational training," Rubio told a standing-room-only crowd of about 200 at a Buckhead hotel. "I will be the vocational education president, and we will open up federal financial aid and Pell grants so students don't have to wait until they're 19 to go to a trade school, they can start going at 16 and 17 so they can graduate ready to work."
Prong two: Broaden the options for those who need higher education the most.
"Take for example a single mother, and she makes $14 an hour as a receptionist at a law firm," Rubio said. "The only way she's ever going to get a raise is if she can go back to school and become a paralegal, or a dental hygienist, or any other paraprofessional. But she can't go back to school, because all the existing schools would require her to quit her job, (and) find someone to watch her kids, while she sits in a classroom for two to three years to get a degree.
"But what if there was an alternative system available? One that competes with the traditional four-year colleges. An alternative system that says, we're going to give you credit for what you've already learned … through work experience, and life experience, and military experience. And whatever you're missing, we're going to allow you to acquire those credits from a variety of sources."
Those sources could be the growing number of quality — and free — online courses. "The point," he said, "is to allow the flexibility and choices and options, so you can package learning, (to have) a system that says, we're going to award degrees based on what you learned, not on how many hours you sat in a classroom."
The debate in Georgia, playing out in Gov. Nathan Deal's Education Reform Commission, is more focused on k-12 schooling.
But Rubio's emphasis on flexibility and choices also applies to the debate here. Like that law-firm receptionist, there are plenty of younger students whose needs aren't served well by traditional public schools. Maybe, as Rubio suggested, they need a mix of traditional and online courses. Maybe they need the ability to use the public money allotted to them at the school of their choice. Maybe they need to move on to the next challenge as soon as they're ready.
That doesn't mean traditional public schools will disappear, any more than traditional, four-year colleges will. It just means they shouldn't be the only educational path for those with limited means.