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How should higher ed be funded?

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By The Staff

Hannah Hayes

I loved Kelly’s passionate plea for schools in her Columbine column. It’s ironic and predictably perfect that she would follow it up by advocating for a $300 million cut in higher education this week. Education is the single most important force in creating the kind of citizenry that America needs. An indication that you value schools would be a willingness to pay for them, as our state surely must.

Colorado has 108 post-secondary educational institutions. The average annual cost for tuition, fees, room and board at a public four-year school is about $12,000 a year and about $30,000 at a private one. That puts Colorado on par with the rest of the country. While our student-to-faculty ratio is average, the student-to-staff ratio jumps way out of proportion, suggesting that administrative costs would be a place to look for making budget cuts. Eliminating mismanagement is preferable to excluding poor students.

Halving Colorado’s budget for higher education would result in tuition hikes during a time when many are struggling financially. Placing the burden on students, rather than trimming administration expenses, puts continued education out of reach for poor and other disadvantaged groups, many of whom attend Metropolitan State College and community colleges.

“Well, I suppose they have to fund prisons. And hey, if we cut funding to education any more, we’re sure to need new and better prisons,” says one Metro teacher. Or, as Victor Hugo puts it, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”

Cutting education funding doesn’t just hurt students. It will cause new unemployment, an increase in the student-to-teacher ratio, and other fallout for Colorado’s economy. It seems that some would trade an educated population for a solvent corporation.

Pinnacol Assurance is an unusual company that holds a monopoly on worker compensation programs. It’s a not-for-profit, state-owned business with tax-exempt status (a $40 million per year savings for it), $600 million in reserves for existing claims, $600 million in a fund for possible future claims, and a $700 million surplus. Pinnacol enjoys the kinds of corporate protections that the right likes to provide to large companies while they are paid for by small business. While the right calls reallocation of some of Pinnacol’s excess a “raid,” the left wonders how that company is doing so well in this downward economy. Such favoritism at the expense of education is irresponsible.

As one of the left’s favorite T-shirts says, “It will be a great day when the schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” An education is a much better investment in our future than any army. Ignorance furthers governing through fear. Educating the people is akin to trusting them.

Kelly Weist

It’s called the Washington Monument gambit. In the long-ago times, when the president demanded that Congress cut the budget (instead of running up massive deficits), they would play a game. In this game, the only spending that Congress could find to cut was extremely popular and visible programs. Thus, the Appropriations Committee would moan and roll their eyes and close the Washington Monument to all tourists. The outcry from citizens would be intense. Finally, some taxes would be raised, and both the executive and the legislature would declare victory. The losers, as always, were the taxpayers.

 

On the state level, the traditional sacrificial lamb is the prisons. The populace would be properly frightened of murderers and rapists roaming the streets at will, and demand action. The legislature and the executive would cut a deal to raise taxes, and once again, everyone wins except you and me.

And now, we have higher education. No discussion of whether state college budgets themselves make sense, or whether state taxpayers should be funding higher education in the first place. We will just take an ax to $300 million of state funding for state colleges. Of course, Gov. Bill Ritter did float the trial balloon of closing a prison earlier this year, preserving the tradition, but someone in the state government came up with an even better idea. How to get the biggest outcry for the buck? Threaten the middle classes’ most sacred of boondoggles — their children’s college education.

Mandated spending on Medicare and Medicaid eat up ever-larger percentages of the state budget. Here in Colorado, we have a constitutional amendment that mandates certain spending for K-12 education. So the legislature, our elected representatives, have very little money to play with. This makes them unhappy. How will they make all their constituencies happy? What can they brag about?

Our republic is based on the idea that government should be limited — limited in its power over our lives, limited in its taxing ability and, yes, limited in its spending. In Colorado, TABOR was enacted by the people in order to give real meaning to these limits. TABOR is not the problem; our representatives’ desire to expand government’s reach is our problem.

And thus, higher ed. Subsidizing state colleges to hide the real cost of a college education also enables college administrations to spend money left and right on their pet projects as well, with no accountability. Accountability comes with the rigor of prices. When families know what college actually costs, they make decisions based on those costs. When colleges see this, and realize they are losing customers, they start controlling costs, making smarter decisions. College is a commodity like any other. It is not an entitlement that we are owed by our government. Maybe cutting state funding for higher ed will make everyone realize this.

 

Hayes’ rebuttal

Our country is not based on the idea that government should be limited. That’s a negative, and negatives don’t make good foundations. It’s based on some very beautiful ideas, foremost of which is that government is of the people, by the people and for the people. That makes us a participatory democracy ruled by the majority.

The stick in Kelly’s craw is that the people have spoken through the election process. (Indeed, it was her guy who took governmental power to the excess.)

People want education, health care and many other services from their government. TABOR, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, was so restrictive that former governor Bill Owens and the voters decided to take a time-out from TABOR by passing Referendum C in 2005. According to the Bell Policy Center, TABOR has “seriously impaired the state’s ability to set budgetary and program priorities and respond to crises, such as the recession of 2001-03. In short, TABOR has created a state government that is hamstrung by inflexible rules that make it unresponsive and less effective.” Let the government serve.

Hannah B. Hayes is a small-business owner and an activist for peace and justice. A recent graduate of Leadership Evergreen with a master’s degree in education, Hayes has remained active in this community through her writing and organizing for 35 years.

Weist’s rebuttal

No, Hannah, valuing schools and education doesn’t mean that we must write a blank check from taxpayers’ pockets, and it doesn’t mean that an education must come from the state. Liberals are more than happy to aggregate more money and power to themselves through government, and that’s all this reluctance to cut the budget really is.

Hannah is incorrect in her description of Pinnacol. It does not have a monopoly on worker compensation insurance — it is the insurer of last resort. These are not state funds, and it is unconstitutional and irresponsible for the legislators to go around looking for money they don’t own in order to keep their spending power. That’s what this all comes back to — keeping spending high so that they can keep taxpayers’ funds under their control. If they cut state spending, then that reduces the amount they get to spend in coming years under TABOR. Quel horreur! Legislators without the ability to spend!

Perhaps we better just close the legislature for a year. That would save a great deal of money, and they could do some honest work for once.

Attorney and political activist Kelly Weist has served on the board of directors of the Colorado Federation of Republican Women and is the co-founder of Mountain Republican Women. She is an adjunct professor of political science at Metropolitan State College of Denver.