Hollowing Out the Public

While many imagine that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population.  Our society and politics have veered dangerously toward policy that rewards individualism and neglects public responsibility for the well being of all.

Some examples—

There is Kansas, where the state Supreme Court ruled last Friday that unless the legislature does something drastic in the next few weeks, the state cannot open public schools for the 2016-17 school year based on a school funding plan that has long violated the state’s constitution, despite that the legislature has been pretending to fix it.  In 2012 and 2013, Governor Sam Brownback and the state legislature slashed personal income taxes with the promise that the state’s economy would grow as a result.  The growth did not occur, and a state budget crisis ensued instead.  In February, after the state supreme court said the legislature must correct school funding by June 30 or the state’s schools must close, the legislature passed a bill to give poorer districts some additional state funding, but on Friday, according to the NY Times’ Julie Bosman, “In a 47-page ruling, the court rejected that bill, saying the Legislature’s formula ‘creates intolerable, and simply unfair wealth-based disparities among the districts.'” John Hanna of the Associated Press quotes one of the plaintiff’s attorneys: “(I)t would cost the state between $17.5 million and $29.5 million during the 2016-2017 school year to comply with the court’s latest order, depending on whether lawmakers want to prevent any districts from losing aid as they boost funding for the poor ones… Legislators aren’t scheduled to meet again this year except for a brief adjournment ceremony Wednesday.”  Whether schools open in Kansas next fall will depend on whether the legislature allocates more money at its closing session this week.

Then there is the plight of state colleges and universities.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the 2008 recession devastated state budgets for colleges and universities.  Though states have begun to restore allocations for higher education, tuition is up across the nation and course offerings and even building maintenance have suffered.  “Forty-five states—all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession.  States cut funding deeply after the recession hit.  The average state is spending $1,525, or 17 percent, less per student than before the recession.  Per student funding in eight states—Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—is down by more than 30 percent since the start of the recession.  In 11 states, per-student funding fell over the last year.  Of these, three states—Arkansas, Kentucky, and Vermont—have cut per student higher education funding for the last two consecutive years.”  The report adds that 38 states have begun to restore funding, averaging an increase nationally of 4 percent.  “Over time, students have assumed much greater responsibility for paying for public higher education.” “The cost shift from states to students has happened over a period when absorbing additional expenses has been difficult for many families because their incomes have been stagnant or declining.”

In Sunday’s NY Times, David Chen explains the local implications of this trend in New York City: “The troubles at City College, and throughout the entire CUNY system, are representative of a funding crisis that has been building at public universities across the country.  Even as the role of higher education as an engine of economic mobility has become increasingly vital, governments have been pulling back their support.”  In New York City, “While enrollment has climbed by more than 12 percent over the last eight years, Albany’s funding of operating costs—the main source of public money for the 11 four-year colleges, where two-thirds of students are enrolled—has dropped by 17 percent adjusted for inflation….”  Chen profiles Anais McAllister, a senior English major who had hoped to earn a teaching credential until cancellation of required education courses spoiled her plans: “When some of her required education classes were canceled, she realized she would need another year—and another $6,000 at least—to graduate with the education credential.  With her scholarship expiring at the end of this academic year, and a younger brother entering trade school in the fall to obtain his plumber certification, she dropped the education concentration.”

Finally there is the impact of libertarian politics and far-right lobbying by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in our statehouses.  These are the groups driving efforts to reduce regulation and rapidly expand privatization—with powerful charter school networks and their supporters protecting their right to drain tax dollars out of state budgets.  It has looked as though legislators in Michigan are finally coming together on a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from massive debt driven up under state-appointed austerity managers, but a stumbling block is that while the Senate seems willing to establish a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the location, number and quality of charter schools—many of them in Michigan for-profit, the House is balking.  It is known that the Great Lakes Education Project, supported by the far-right Dick and Betsy DeVos, is lobbying hard against the inclusion of the Detroit Education Commission in the Detroit financial rescue, and Kevin Cotter, Speaker of the Michigan House, is reported by the Detroit News to be opposed to the establishment of the commission that would regulate charters: “Cotter remains concerned the commission could be used to ‘unfairly’ target charter schools.”

Brent Larkin, the former editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in a column on Sunday, quotes U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown summarizing the many ways Ohio’s state legislature is beholden these days to privatization and special interests instead of the public good: “The legislature is so close to the payday lenders, so close to the for-profit charter school operators, so close to the oil and gas people, and so close to the gun lobby… It’s their far-right politics.  It’s their campaign contributions. It’s the whole network in Columbus that betrays the public interest so often.”