In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, Gordon Lafer describes the red-state wave that occurred in the November 2010 election: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances. In many states new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed Red Map campaign. Critically, this new territory included a string of states running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds. In addition, this was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)
Scott Walker became the Governor of Wisconsin in January of 2011, just as John Kasich became Governor of Ohio, and both states became Republican trifecta states, with both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office controlled by Republicans. Walker and Kasich continue as governors of their respective states, though Ohio’s term limits will sideline John Kasich after 2018. Tax slashing— with disastrous implications for public colleges and universities, among the many services of state government—has characterized both governors’ terms. Although we might imagine that the programmatic needs of each state’s essential public institutions drive state budgeting, years of austerity in Ohio and Wisconsin are now reshaping what have in the past been thought of as essential public institutions.
A report late last summer from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) describes “a lost decade in higher education funding,” in which “state cuts have driven up tuition and reduced quality.” CBPP reports that Ohio’s funding for its public universities has fallen 15.2 percent since 2008—a drop of $1,073 per student when adjusted for inflation. Wisconsin is omitted from CBPP’s charts and tables because, “Wisconsin state lawmakers changed the funding model for Wisconsin’s Technical College system, shifting support from the local property tax to state General Purpose Revenue.” But, “Excluding this shift, per-student funding fell by $1,626 or 24.8 percent, over 2008-2017.” In both states tuition has risen. “Public colleges and universities also have cut staff and eliminated programs.”
Here is how Gordon Lafer describes severe cuts to Wisconsin’s state university system: “As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013, with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per (K-12) student than it had in 2008…. It’s spending on higher education had been cut by 22 percent over the same period, and in early 2015 Walker announced plans for a 13 percent reduction in funding for the University of Wisconsin system—the largest in the state’s history….” (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)
Ohio’s public universities have also been experiencing a revenue shortage. A year ago, Zach Schiller of Policy Matters Ohio presented legislative testimony on the proposed 2018-19 Ohio biennial budget. Schiller worried about the danger of more tax cuts on top of all the other tax cuts imposed by John Kasich and the legislature since 2011: “For more than a decade, Ohio lawmakers have focused on income tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest at the expense of adequate investment in communities and people.” Schiller examined the effects of a decade of tax cutting on specific state services including higher education: “College in Ohio remains unaffordable. Nationally, Ohio is ranked 45th highest in college costs with community colleges and public universities costing 11.5 percent and 14.5 percent more than the national average, respectively. We remain $150 million a year below the target for need-based college financial aid…”
Ohio’s Governors Kasich and Wisconsin’s Governor Walker have attacked not only their states’ higher education budgets but also the very ideal of public colleges and universities. In Ohio, Governor Kasich has attempted structural changes intended to turn education into mere workforce preparation. In September of 2017, Kasich created a 27 member Executive Workforce Board that included no teachers or principals from the state’s local school districts, no leader of a public four-year university, and only two current or former leaders of community colleges. The Akron Beacon Journal‘s Doug Livingston describes a “group… packed with legislators, a couple of county commissioners, a hospital administrator and mostly company executives.” One idea that Governor Kasich inserted into the 2018-19 state budget (It was later removed after an enormous public outcry.) was a requirement for public school teachers to undertake workplace externships as part of maintaining state teacher certification. The purpose of the externships was defined: to help teachers “see what it’s like to work outside the classroom so they can better match their students to the needs of local employers.” Kasch’s Office of Workforce Transformation also recommended, though the idea was later deemed unworkable, that each school district’s superintendent appoint three members of the business community to become non-voting members of the district’s school board.
Now in March 2018, Kasich has gone further. In the recently proposed House Bill 512, Governor Kasich and legislative allies seek to subsume into the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board both the responsibilities of the State Board of K-12 Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction along with the Board of Regents of the state universities. Kasich has already virtually demolished the Higher Education Board of Regents by failing to fulfill his responsibility to appoint its members when resignations occur. Here is how the editorial board of the Akron Beacon Journal describes the merger at the heart of HB 512 along with some questions and concerns: “The bill would merge the departments of higher education and education, plus the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation… The governor did not consult widely or effectively. For one, Paolo DeMaria, the state school superintendent and a logical source for input, was not asked for his thoughts by those putting together the proposal… The governor already controls two of the three offices that would be merged. The potential exists for having considerable clout with the third, the Department of Education, along with (the) state school board… Yet though the department plays a big and obvious role in the work mission, the governor did not put the state superintendent on the workforce transformation board. Neither has the governor filled seats on the state Board of Regents overseeing higher education. The nine-member board currently has just two members.”
We’ll see what happens with Ohio’s HB 512. While there appears to be massive opposition to the governor’s plan, both houses of the legislature are are made up of supermajorities of Kasich allies. One reason the Governor’s plan to subsume all of education governance into workforce preparation is widely unpopular is that it turns over democratic authority for public education education from a State Board of Education (with eleven of the nineteen members publicly elected) to a Cabinet agency appointed by the governor. Governor Kasich’s plan is also unpopular because many understand education as more than job training, both at the elementary and high school levels and also in the state’s universities.
While Ohio’s Governor Kasich has tried to shift the state’s approach to education through governance changes without explicitly denying the relevance off the humanities and the social sciences, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has been far more blunt in his attack on a well rounded college education. Back in 2015, Walker’s 2016-17 budget proposal included not only a 13 percent cut in funding for the University of Wisconsin system, but—right in the budget bill—Walker inserted language to change the University’ historic mission statement, known as the Wisconsin Idea, a formal definition of the purpose of education that has been part of state law for over a century.
In the Washington Post last Thursday, Valerie Strauss published the Wisconsin Idea that Walker tried unsuccessfully to re-write: “The mission of the system is to develop human resources, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”
Strauss reminds readers about exactly how Walker tried to rewrite the Wisconsin Idea in the state budget bill—“dropping ‘search for truth’ and ‘improve the human condition’ and replacing them with ‘meet the state’s workforce needs.'”
While Wisconsin’s governor was not able to get his new “workforce” definition of education substituted for the Wisconsin Idea, today, due partly to budget cuts passed by Walker and the state legislature, one of the University of Wisconsin’s campuses faces a radical redefinition of its mission and re-shaping of its course offerings. On March 5, 2018, leaders of one of the University’s branches, the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, announced they faced a $4.5 million deficit. Strauss explains: “In 2015, Gov. Scott Walker… successfully sought from the legislature a $250 million cut from the tuition-reliant university system—an 11 percent reduction. That was on top of funding cuts in the hundreds of millions of dollars during the previous decade. Legislators also removed the principles of tenure and shared school governance from state law, thus giving administrators more power to lay off tenured faculty and unilaterally make decisions in which faculty and students once participated.”
Strauss reports that now in 2018, a new plan at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point eliminates 13 majors in the liberal arts—the humanities and social sciences. Majors being terminated are American studies, art, English, French, geography, geoscience, German, history, music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology, and Spanish. The University will continue to offer some classes in these disciplines along with a teacher certification program that incorporates courses in some of these areas.
As the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point eliminates majors in the liberal arts, it is adding all kinds of career-driven new majors. The hope is to attract tuition-paying students to majors that appear to lead directly to employment: chemical engineering, computer information systems, conservation law enforcement, finance, fire science, graphic design, management and marketing, aquaculture, captive wildlife ecosystem design and remediation, environmental engineering, geographic information science, master of business administration, master of natural resources and doctor of physical therapy.
Without a major in philosophy, it is less likely that anyone at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point will be aware of the warning from John Dewey, perhaps America’s most famous philosopher of education, and someone who cared very much about the role of education for shaping democratic citizens. In a Pedagogic Creed written in 1897 Dewey defines what ought to be the included in our schools and universities and the danger of the kind of job-specific training Scott Walker and John Kasich are pushing: “The only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers. With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”