Education goes private


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I was hopeful, maybe naïvely so.

While Terry Branstad wasn’t my first choice for governor, his record on higher education wasn’t abhorrent. And Chet Culver, the equivocating embodiment of milquetoast progressivism, would finally be gone. So, I figured, a Branstad administration couldn’t be too bad, right?

As I said — maybe I was a little naïve.

What I hadn’t fully comprehended (and what I now recognize) was the higher-education paradigm shift that had occurred, the new funding status quo that had emerged.

That new consensus among state politicians is roughly this: We can reduce public support for our state universities, as increased efficiency — along with tuition hikes and money from other private sources — will prevent them from being egregiously hampered. (Not all state elected officials believe this, but as far as I can tell, non-adherents are anomalies.)

These assumed upshots have already proven false.

University of Iowa President Sally Mason said earlier this month that budget cuts have caused top faculty members to leave. The UI is increasingly serving out-of-state students, rather than Iowa students, because they bring in more tuition dollars.

And legislators have started floating myopic solutions — such as selling Jackson Pollock’s Mural — instead of addressing the underlying problem.

We’re currently in what Tom Mortenson, an Iowa-based higher-education policy expert, called a “death spiral” — state-government retrenchment and state universities that have, in reaction, turned their backs on Iowa residents.

“Unless somebody steps back or there’s a negotiated truce, we’re going to have three private universities that used to be owned by the state,” Mortenson told me in a recent interview.
It may seem a bit fatalistic, but he is right.

A cursory glance at higher-education funding levels underscores just how far away the state has moved from the old consensus.

There was a limited ebb and flow of support for public universities under both Democrat Harold Hughes (in office from 1963-1969) and Republican Robert Ray (1969-1983). Despite their differing party affiliations, the funding continuity is striking. In the 1963-64 school year, state appropriations accounted for 77 percent of the UI’s general fund. Twenty years later, that had only dipped to 71 percent.

Terry Branstad’s first 16 years in Terrace Hill saw a decline in state appropriations, but overall support still remained strong. In the 1998-99 school year, the state was still funding 63 percent of the UI’s operating budget.

The bipartisan consensus was burst asunder under Democrats Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver; the state now funds less than 40 percent of the UI’s budget.

“When [Branstad] was governor before, he was a rather strong supporter of the universities,” Mortenson said. “It took Vilsack and Culver to gut the state’s investment in higher education.”

So when Branstad was elected last November, I was hopeful he’d reverse the privatization trend, unaware of the new consensus.

Instead of filling in a decade’s worth of holes, however, Branstad has sought to further defund state universities. The “common sense” of supporting public higher education has now degenerated into the “common sense” of “doing more with less.”

This blithe disregard for our public universities needs to end. If the new bipartisan consensus isn’t challenged on economic and democratic grounds, it will only become more entrenched.

Democratic theorist Amy Gutmann phrased it well: “Just as we need a more democratic politics to further democratic education, so we need a more democratic education to further democratic politics. If we value either, we must pursue both.”

Some leaders, including state Board of Regents’ President David Miles, have been admirably outspoken about the need for increased appropriations. But more indignation and action is needed.

Bottom line: Public higher education is worth fighting for.

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