We Have an Education Crisis, Not a Budget Crisis

OU’s administrators tell us we face an unprecedented budget crisis that will fundamentally transform our university so that we will no longer recognize it as programs are excised or “restructured,” tenure positions eliminated, and senior faculty pushed into early retirement.  The reality of our situation seems inexorable: we don’t have the money, so we have no choice but to cut–that is, unless you’re a coach of one of OU’s sports teams.

And, yet, as Amy Dean has noted in her analysis of how a powerful coalition of unions, community organizations, and political activists in Oregon built a solid consensus in favor of increasing taxes to reinforce public programs and institutions, there are other ways of viewing and responding to our predicament in Ohio.  She observes:

[A]cross the nation, polls show that while people may favor reducing government spending in the abstract, when it comes to the actual programs that might be affected, they prioritize public services over deficit reduction. In a recently released survey by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Republicans said that the government should focus on reducing the deficit. Yet when asked about specific programs, a majority of respondents, including Republicans, rejected spending decreases for programs such as education, Social Security, agriculture and roads and bridges. Our challenge is turning the voices that we don’t hear regularly in the media into a vocal majority.

When we … set up the debate as one of saving money versus spending money, we lose. Drawing from the Oregon example, we must approach the discussion in a different way, creating a conversation about what is really worth paying for.

Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans want well-run and adequately funded social programs and public institutions.  They want top-notch schools and universities that are affordable for everyone, not just the rich.  And, as the example of Oregon shows us, they are willing to pay for them once they understand what is at stake.  Dean reminds us that “Oregon had a history of antitax votes, with residents capping property taxes and repeatedly rejecting efforts to raise the state income tax or create a sales tax.”  But in 2009,

the state legislature… enacted measures that would raise taxes on corporations and households earning more than $250,000 per year in order to preserve critical public services. In January 2010, after opponents forced a public referendum on the tax measures, proponents waged a resolute and ultimately successful campaign that allowed lawmakers to keep essential public services off of the chopping block.

What we have in Ohio is not a budget crisis but rather a failure to have an honest discussion about the importance of our public institutions, especially our schools and universities, and what it takes financially to support them.  We are being sold a dangerous fiction–that we can cut our way to success.  But what will be the measure of this success?  An exploding wealth and knowledge gap exacerbated by skyrocketing tuition at the “charter universities” that could very well replace the public institutions we now have?

It does not have to be this way.  There are other futures possible, and Oregon has pointed the way.

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