The week of March 26, 2012, the California State University system made two very revealing moves. On Monday, they announced an system-wide enrollment freeze for Spring 2013 (although eight campuses will take a few hundred transfer students from the community colleges). Additionally, the system plans to wait-list everyone who applies to any of the schools. Those chickens are now coming home to roost, although things have been somewhat mitigated by the passage of Prop 30 last year.
In a move a day later, the Board of Regents of the System gave a 10% pay increase to two CSU Presidents, one at CSU Fullerton and the other at CSU Channel Islands (?). This now raises the pay of the President of CSUF to over $300K per year, or approximately twice what the Governor makes. Nice work if you can get it, and you don't need to be elected to the position.
Essentially, tertiary education in California, which was once the envy of the nation, is going down in flames. There are a lot of people to whom one could assign blame, starting with the voters of California, who when they passed Prop 13 lo those many years ago, began to undercut competitiveness of schools at levels in the state. (Indeed, prior to Prop 13, K12 schools in the state were above the national average in amount spent per student. After Prop 13, funding fell below the national average and has never looked back.) This impact on K12 education carried up the line to the college and university level. In the system set up by Governor Pat Brown, the UC system was to take the top 12.5% of grads from California high schools. The top 33% were guaranteed a spot in the CSUs, and the community colleges would accept everyone. Tuition was waived for California residents (although they were still responsible for books, fees and other costs). Out-of-state and foreign students, who had to compete pretty hard to get in, paid a lot more. Under this plan there was still room for private non-profit schools to attract a number of students as well as CA students who attended schools in other states.
Rather than go into the history here of the Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam War protests, Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement starting with Prop 13, suffice it to say this vision was soon under attack more for political reasons than for educational ones. Indeed, this model still thrives--in Europe, where getting into a university is highly competitive, students don't pay tuition (or very little) and graduates are among the best educated in the world. What exists here is not just a cynicism about the value of education (the administrators are worth more than those providing education), but in fact, the value of public education.
What we have seen more of in the last several years is the growth of for-profit schools. These are not confined to colleges and universities, although to be sure they have gained the most notoriety (notoriousness may be a better word) with the way some have encouraged students to take out loans, and then have allegedly not delivered on their promises (the latest for-profit to find itself in this kind of hot water is Trump University). Many of these private, for-profit schools are under investigation for what amounts to fraud. Not all, however. Some do come through and offer a good education to their students. But what is happening is a transfer of tax dollars to private hands where someone is profiting. And this is something to be concerned about. (For the most part, I'm less concerned about non-profit private institutions, but as you'll see in a moment, there are times when public funds are spent on them that bears questioning.)
This is not only happening at the college level. There are for-profit K12 schools too, some operate like non-profit private schools, but there are some charter schools that are not delivering on their promises. (Again it is not all charter schools. I want to be clear about that. A lot of charter schools are doing great work.) I am concerned about those that go into business to make a buck by taking over a failing school, and ultimately don't deliver on their promises. In the interim, tax dollars have enriched someone rather than helping the community as they were supposed to. Or worse where there is outright corruption.
But wait, it's not just California. In Illinois, Mayor Rahm Emanual moved to balance the city budget by closing 47 schools, most of which were in the poorer parts of the city. Why these schools? It isn't performance of the schools; schools rated both good and poor were slated to close. Those students headed back to school this week, over 12,000 of them impacted by the closures. Within weeks of publicizing these closings, the city announced a new multipurpose center for DePaul University. It isn't much of a stretch to call this a diversion of public money to private hands (or robbing Peter to pay DePaul). I mean I get why governments give taxes breaks to business to build, and I understand what the multiplier effect is and how it works. However, the money being spent on the multipurpose center will mostly benefit those students who attend a non-public university. The money would be better spent on the children in those elementary schools in South and West Chicago because there is a multiplier effect there too. Better education at the primary and secondary levels makes it more likely those kids will seek tertiary education later...if even at community college.
This trend needs to stop. We need to return to seeing free, high-quality public education as a right as they do in Europe. The transfer of public funds to private hands ultimately hurts us as a nation. We can do better. When we hit down times, the key is not to spend less on public education, but to spend more. Not at the top, not by overpaying administrators, but by putting the money into programs for students. Not by closing schools or turning them over to private concerns, but by investing and improving the existing public schools. It is in the schools that we will find the people who will lead us to better times. We just need to make the investment in them.