02 April 2008

The Tragic Sinkhole of Low Expectations

While I discuss politics and technology on this blog often, I usually try to avoid taking a side on controversial political issues.

Not today.

Today the Kentucky legislature will likely pass a budget that sends me a very clear statement: "we don't want your kind here." This budget cuts higher education by three percent - on top of the three percent cut already imposed a few months ago.

Kentucky has long been one of the poorest, least educated and least healthy states in the union. Smart and talented people leave the state for better educational opportunities and better jobs every day. They don't often come back. Since I've lived here, I've watched the Kentucky legislature waste its time debating false solutions like eliminating the prevailing wage for state construction projects and opening casinos, and side-show issues like requiring the flagship university to be a "Top 20 Public Institution" (whatever that means) by 2020 or posting the Ten Commandments in the State House while our education and health infrastructures continue to deteriorate.

The only way this state will ever reverse its fortunes is to make a substantially increased and sustained investment in the education and training of its people. But apparently that's a decision for another legislature at another time. Instead, by cutting higher education another three percent, the legislature tells people like me - educated professionals looking for a place to start a family - that Kentucky values cheap cigarettes over high-skill, high-wage jobs and a quality education for kids.

But it's the insult on top of the injury that prompted me to write this. What truly has me flummoxed is the reaction of Kentucky's leaders in higher education - they're not just pleased, they are - in their own words - ecstatic.

"Given the revenue constraints they had, I think it's a remarkable showing of how much both chambers value us," said Doug Whitlock, president of Eastern Kentucky University. "We recognize the realities of the situation."

Wayne Andrews, president of Morehead State University, said the lesser cuts mean the school won't have to hike tuition by double digits.

"I can say with confidence it's going to be less than 10 percent," Andrews said.

The universities must submit their proposed tuition increases to the Council on Postsecondary Education by April 25. The CPE will take action on the proposals at its May 9 meeting.

"I'm quite ecstatic," said Brad Cowgill, interim president of the council. " It's like a coming from behind win for the home team. Higher education has staying power with this legislature, and we're grateful for that."

University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd issued a statement saying that "our legislature and its leaders have indicated that they strongly believe that continued investment in our public universities is critical to Kentucky's future."

I'll try to be clear here: a six-percent cut in higher education is NOT an appropriate reason for college presidents to take a rhetorical victory lap. It's a reason for outrage. This budget is NOT an act of courage or a sign of commitment to education. It's a suicide pact that will send smart people looking for opportunity - the only hope for Kentucky's future - heading toward the exits. It's a sure sign that Kentucky is trapped in a cultural and political sinkhole of low expectations and profoundly wrong-headed thinking.

These statements were made in the context of the Governor's initial budget proposal of a 12 percent cut (on top of the three percent cut) in higher education - a manufactured political crisis intended to deliver the equine industry the windfall of a casino cartel it so desperately wanted. They were made in the context of a place that has historically placed education near the bottom of its list of priorities. The political tone was set from the very beginning - we could choose less education or no education. And for some reason that still escapes me, we hold no one to task for setting up that false set of choices.

This legislature gave lip service to raising revenues - specifically, increasing our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax or possibly the sales tax - to support higher education and human services. Again, no deal. The leadership of this state apparently gave more consideration to the idea of lopping off one-eighth of the higher education budget than it did to trying to keep pace with the education systems of other states. It also refuses to give state universities the ability to secure bonds, a common practice in nearly every other state. This is madness.

Despite a ridiculous statutory mandate to be in the "top 20," among public institutions by 2020, the University of Kentucky currently holds the 122nd spot among "national universities" in the US News & World Report Rankings, with at least 55 public universities ahead of it. The legislature did not make the University's job any easier.

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