- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 23, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Sen. Ron Johnson on Tuesday attempted to clarify remarks he had made about wanting to bust up the higher education “cartel,” while his Democratic challenger launched a new attack ad portraying the Republican as not caring about college student loan debt.

Johnson also elicited a reaction from documentarian Ken Burns about the senator’s suggestion that showing college students the PBS documentary on the Civil War would be a preferable way to teach the subject than with the current instructor-based approach.

“I’m here to support teachers, not replace them,” Burns said on Twitter.

Feingold’s new attack ad keys off on other comments Johnson made last year about student loan debt, where he said some college students view it as “free money.” It comes as college students are returning to campuses and as Johnson is having to explain what he meant at the forum last week where he repeated his criticism of the federal government’s role in subsidizing student loans.

“Let’s get rid of the higher education cartel,” said Johnson at the event in Milwaukee on Thursday, suggesting that colleges could save money by offering more courses and lectures online.

“If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject?” Johnson said. “Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’ Civil War tape and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.”

Johnson tried to turn the issue of college affordability against Feingold on Tuesday, branding him as a hypocrite for earning $450,000 from 17 different schools since losing re-election in 2010. The bulk of that money came from Feingold’s teaching stint at Stanford University.

“If you’ve got a fabulous lecturer on any subject, put that person on videotape and replay it,” Johnson said in comments distributed by his campaign. “That’s the whole advantage of things like massive online open courses. You don’t need individual professors for everything when you find an excellent professor. Put them on videotape and let that individual be the lecturer for a host of other people.”

Johnson’s praising the virtues of online courses echoed his comments from last week about using the Civil War documentary as the basis of teaching a class on the subject.

“It could just so dramatically improve quality of education while you’re lowering the price,” Johnson said of online learning.

Feingold has tried to make college affordability a key issue in his rematch with Johnson, repeatedly campaigning on college campuses and touting his call for allowing students to refinance student loans and to protect Pell Grants for low-income students.

Johnson, while agreeing that college costs are too high, has said that the federal government makes student debt problems worse by subsidizing loans and has “lured” students into high levels of debt. Johnson did join with Democrats in supporting extending the Perkins loan program for low-interest loans to needy college students.

The Feingold ad replays Johnson comments from a 2015 town hall meeting in which he said student loans were easy to obtain, young people “don’t necessarily understand finance” and some students see the high-interest loans as “free money.” The ad says Johnson wants to eliminate federal student loans and “keep interest rates high,” a reference to his vote against a proposal allowing the refinancing of student loans at lower interest rates.

About 815,000 Wisconsin residents have student loan debt totaling about $19.3 billion, based on White House figures.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer .

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