Zephyr Teachout Speaks With The Oracle

What are your thoughts on student debt?

It’s time to recognize the depth of the problem: the younger generations of this country are walking around with debt. Seventy-one percent are graduating with debt. One of the things that is especially painful is that only 60 percent of planned four-year degrees are finishing with a degree. So they ultimately are ending up with debt but no degree, and tuition is increasing faster than inflation.

In 1979, the average tuition at a public college was $2,100. Having debt totally changes the experience of graduation because it narrows opportunities to invest in one’s future, whether that be buying a home or starting a business, then choosing the right career path. I support proposals for debt-free college, really focusing in public colleges.

What are your ideas for making that happen? 

Families with income under $125,000 a year should not be paying tuition at public colleges, or at least paying a very minimal amount. There may be a requirement of minimal payment to be at college for those families, but nothing that would lead to debt. A second part of the plan is to support the bill to refinance students who have loans. This bill has been really blocked by billionaires who don’t like this kind of stuff. Another thing that is incredibly important to recognize is that we must stop and prevent the abuse of for-profit colleges.

For example, backers of for-profit colleges use the as opportunities to extract taxpayer dollars than opportunities to teach students. Twenty-five percent of all federal financial aid dollars are going to for-profit colleges that are set up to extract federal dollars.  One of my ideas is putting limits on Pell grants and making sure that there is full accounting of transparency and limits on federal financial support going to for-profit colleges that publicly and clearly show that they have less focus on education and more on profit.

The bottom line is there is a fundamental fight between a handful of big banks who have hired a lot of lobbyists and for-profit colleges hired lobbyists that are pushing for policies that allow them to basically use government efforts to support college students as ways to make a profit. This is an abuse of key federal funding.

I believe that we are at a moment where you can’t go anywhere without hearing people talking about student debt. Not only is this a barrier for students, but a burden for people in college and their families. It is a burden for young Americans coming out of college. They can’t take the next step in investing in a home or starting a business, and it is holding back the entire economy.

In the last few years there has definitely been a growing awareness, and even the national campaign has shown that growing awareness, because so many current and former students have spoken up.

Students of New Paltz have done an excellent job of speaking up against excessive debt. I have been proud of having been part of the growing national awareness. What is important to recognize is that this isn’t a partisan issue, this is about our future as a country. On the other hand we see Republican big donor-backed candidates who are voting to limit access to income-based repayment programs. Trump University, for example, became a for-profit fraudulent scheme preying on people seeking a real education. There is legitimate anger and frustration and this is a fight we can win. It is not a partisan win. In-state public school tuition should be free or minimal for families with income lower than $125,000.

Where will the money come from for this? 

There are real cost questions, I think that right now supporting our public universities is essential to our economy. What needs to happen is closing the loopholes that allow the highest income taxpayers to not pay taxes. Everyone can come together to find and support students, to not hold back the economy.

What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement? 

Some of the most exciting and important things are happening on the ground where community members and police officers are meeting with each other to work issues out. Those efforts are extremely important. There has been a real public discussion of the problem, but solutions lie at police and community members talking to each other and recognizing the important and difficult work police officers are doing everyday.

What is your stance on LGBTQIA+ issues? 

On this topic you can see the real difference between myself and John Faso. He said he would veto same sex marriage bill in 2006. Equality questions are absolutely fundamental in my opinion, my support for marriage equality goes back to my early 20s, and Faso has a history having a negative position on gay marriage. We differ with other socially conservative positions he’s taken. John Faso said Roe v. Wade was a black mark on democracy. I have a lifetime history of standing up for people who have been discriminated against.

What are your thoughts on some Republicans trying to move towards the defunding of Planned Parenthood?

I have used Planned Parenthood for basic health check-ups and services as many young women do, the bulk of what the do is provide extremely essential services. I stand with Planned Parenthood. This is a real difference with John Faso and myself. Access to reproductive health care is extremely important. In speaking about the Texas Supreme Court decision concerning access to reproductive health care, John Faso said it doesn’t make a difference to people in this district.

He endorsed Donald Trump who said that women who get abortions deserved to be punished, so you don’t get more of a difference than between myself and John Faso on these social issues.

What is your response to Faso framing you as a hypocrite for attending a fundraiser with the son of billionaire George Soros? 

I have spent my entire life fighting against the system of big money. John Faso says money is speech. I tried to get him to take Super PACs out of his campaign, he said no. John Faso has billionaires backing him. He has shown time and time again as a lobbyist and as a candidate that big money as it is right now is fine for him. I have shown my entire life that the campaign finance system needs to be changed.