Capitol Chronicle

The costs of ignorance: Our failure to support public education undermines democracy

Last spring, Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, made clear where she stood on such socialistic notions as public education. "Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever?" she demanded in a legislative hearing. "It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell. And it's cleverly disguised as having a tender heart. It's not a tender heart. It's ripping the heart out of this country."

It's a shame that Riddle, who lists her occupation as "horse breeder," didn't study more broadly for her associate of arts degree at South Texas Junior College. Perhaps there or even in high school she might have run across that communist manifesto known as the Texas Constitution, in particular Article 7, Section 1: "A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools." I'm no expert on Texas history, but I'm fairly certain that the drafters of that document had spent little time in Moscow, and that indeed in political activism they preceded the Bolsheviks by a few decades.

The Texas founders clearly did understand, as our current political leadership has willfully forgotten, that a common public education (among many other shared community goods and burdens) is "essential" to a free republic not because it's compassionate, generous -- or even, God forbid, "tender-hearted" -- but because it is necessary to "the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people." General public ignorance might be considered tolerable in a society of lords and serfs -- or masters and slaves -- but to seriously attempt to maintain a republic of free citizens necessarily requires that those citizens have ready access to a common education and a common public culture.

The Red Tide

These are principles once too obvious to reiterate, but the Legislature's continued determination to evade its constitutional obligation makes it clear that either, like Riddle, they find such bedrock American notions preposterously alien, or more simply, they no longer care to pick up the tab. What is true at the level of public schools is increasingly also true for higher education. Whatever else "tuition deregulation" may mean, it confirms the national trend of the last two decades to squeeze the financial life out of public institutions of all sorts in the name of that entitlement program for the rich known as "privatization."

The most striking statistic offered by UT administrators in defense of their current move to raise tuition, this year and next, is the diminishing level of state support. In the 1970s, more than 80% of UT's academic budget was underwritten by the state budget; currently, that percentage is less than 35% and sinking. UT, which will be raising its tuition roughly 26% over the next two semesters, is not alone. The University of Houston made a similar increase, A&M somewhat lower, and other schools right down to community colleges are following suit.

Even more troubling is the likelihood that these are only temporary measures, intended to stem the immediate bleeding caused by budget cuts while administrators try to figure out how best to proceed in an atmosphere of diminishing public support. The UT committee charged with making recommendations to the president and regents said as much, and the red ink on their projections, even following these increases, is getting not shallower but deeper.

Socialism for the Rich

If UT students have snapped to the larger implications of these fundamental changes in the American social contract, their slack attendance at the two public forums to discuss the tuition increases didn't reflect it. A few dozen students asked politely if the committee had considered various alternatives and what might happen to those students who can't afford the new costs, and the committee responded that indeed it had considered all available alternatives and that in any case, 28 cents of every new dollar would be set aside to partially defray the increase for low- and middle-income families. That is, of course, one more dreary consequence of privatization: Those of us who were once citizens of a democratic society with equal access to public institutions are now increasingly expected to pay disproportionately from our resources, and then line up to be supplicants to the magnanimity of our betters.

One faculty member noted sourly that perhaps UT students should be at least as concerned about the school's financial condition and academic ranking as they undoubtedly are about the record of its football team. Administrators were quick to note that the "athletic budget" is self-contained and (in dubious theory) self-supporting. Once again, that argument depends on the presumption that a public university's priorities should be determined by the largesse of donors to whose mercenary benefit the state's tax structure -- and its laughable support for all public institutions, including education -- is designed. As universities across the country starve for simple facility maintenance, let alone teacher salaries, perhaps this is a good time to suggest that if the National Football League requires a pool of expensively trained apprentices, it should pay for them.

Ah, well, some forms of state socialism are much more "American" than others.

One could have more sympathy for the UT committee's predicament if its public forums hadn't been scheduled effectively after the members had come to their foregone conclusions and made their recommendations to the president. Students who would rather spend their time recovering from hangovers or mourning the OU game might well be forgiven their cynicism about the effect of public input on administrative policy. The UT administration, more decorous in expression as it tends to be, does share with those folks down at the Legislature a structural conviction that public policy is far too important to be left to the public. end story

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education, higher education, Debbie Riddle, public education, tuition, University of Texas

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