During his tenure as Governor of Louisiana, for the last six consecutive years, Bobby Jindal and his allies in the Louisiana legislature have dramatically cut funding for higher education. All told, Louisiana’s public colleges and universities have lost around $700 million (or 17.6%) of state funding. To put that into context, this means that Louisiana, under Governor Jindal, is now leading the nation, by far, in gutting funding for higher education. Quoting from The Times-Picayune (bold mine):
According to preliminary data from the American Association of Colleges and Universities, three-quarters of states increased their funding for higher education this year, with New Hampshire leading the pack with a 28 percent boost in state funding to offset recent cuts.
Louisiana was one of only seven states bucking the trend, however, by slashing state funding for higher education by 17.6 percent in the fiscal year that began in July. The most recent cuts were the most drastic in the nation, the data showed, with West Virginia coming in a distant second at 8.9 percent in cuts.
Louisiana has undergone six straight years of higher ed cuts, with nearly $700 million in state money slated to go to colleges and universities stripped from the budget since 2008. Tuition increases allowed for institutions that reached certain benchmarks were whitewashed by these cuts.
In other words, to make up the difference, Louisiana’s public colleges and universities have been forced to substantially increase tuition (and thereby substantially decrease the affordability and accessibility of public higher education in what is, already, one of the poorest states in the nation).
Representative John Bel Edwards, a candidate for next year’s gubernatorial election, has compared these tuition hikes to a tax increase on the poor and working class, and while these increases may not technically meet the legal definition of a “tax,” Representative Edwards’s comparison is still appropriate. Quoting from The Advocate (bold mine):
Edwards said the trend in recent years has been for lawmakers to look at the dollar amount schools raise tuition, then take as much as double that same amount of state funding away from the schools — essentially making the tuition hikes moot.
Therefore, tuition increases should be considered tax increases, he argued.
Edwards explained his reasoning by saying that if tuition were a fee, schools would reap some benefit from raising prices.
A fee, he said, generates revenue for the agency that collects it. But that’s not the case in this state, he said.
“With all the tuition increases, how come we have not netted a single new dollar,” Edwards said. “That’s a tax increase on our students.”
However, Kyle Plotkin, the spokesman for Governor Bobby Jindal, apparently believes that the increased tuition should count as “state spending,” despite the fact that it is being paid entirely by students, parents, and families. Again, from The Times-Picayune (bold mine): “‘When looking at total means of finance, spending for higher education has gone down by 4.6 percent, but at the same time, student outcomes are on the rise,’ Plotkin said.”
Put more simply: We are making public education less affordable and less accessible to the poor and middle class, and then pretending as if marginal improvements in graduation rates somehow demonstrate that the system now performs better.
It’s insulting, cynical, and shameful, and it’s a prime example of Governor Jindal’s approach to education policy in general: This is not really about improving academic performance; it’s about defunding public institutions in order to manipulate the data. If he can convince the parents of the smartest and most ambitious students attending public elementary and secondary schools to walk away, en masse, from struggling public schools and, instead, use a taxpayer-funded voucher to subsidize their education at a private school, he may be able to, eventually, improve outcomes at these voucher schools, the overwhelming majority of which are unregulated and unaccountable. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s struggling public schools will continue to struggle even more. It’s a fait accompli. And if he can disincentivize poor and middle class students from attending public higher education institutions by making it less accessible and affordable, he can ensure that those schools are primarily populated by students who, for a variety of reasons, are already privileged.
But it didn’t and it doesn’t have to be like this.
Five years ago, Governor Jindal refused to accept $584 million in federal stimulus funds that could have been spent on Louisiana higher education. That is, 84% of the cuts Bobby Jindal made to higher education could have been avoided if he were simply more interested in serving and protecting the people of Louisiana than he is in scoring cheap, fleeting political points for a national audience that consumes its news in scripted infotainment.
Currently, Louisiana has more than 440 tax exemptions, and according to Eddie Ashworth, the President of the Louisiana Budget Project, those exemptions deplete the state of more than $7.1 billion in lost revenue. Contrary to what Governor Jindal and his allies claim, Louisiana is not constitutionally obligated to balance its budget every year simply by cutting funding for education and health care. Instead of decimating public institutions, we could eliminate tax exemptions that we provide to the richest and most profitable companies in the entire world, but for some reason, it’s easier to blame teacher’s unions and Medicaid patients than it is to stand up to corporate lobbyists representing an industry responsible for the worst environmental disaster in American history, the destruction of our coast, and the pilfering of hundreds of billions in profits from our shared natural resources to a small group of people in Texas, Saudi Arabia, and the UK.
There is another part of this story, and it’s equally as important.
Without question, Governor Jindal’s draconian cuts to higher education have forced many of our public institutions to do whatever they can to ensure their sustainability, even if it requires them to disingenuously oppose and undermine other community and educational development initiatives.
During the last legislative session, Governor Bobby Jindal signed Senate Bill 204, which authorized the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS) the ability to issue up to $250 million in bonds for capital projects. And as terrible and awful as I believe Governor Jindal has been toward education, I, nonetheless, should give credit when credit is due: Louisiana’s community college system has been woefully and disastrously neglected, and despite the vocal opposition of leaders in higher education, this bill was a no-brainer.
Some may disagree with me, but I think my position is consistent: I believe Louisiana needs to increase investments in all public education systems and institutions, and community colleges serve a distinct and separate role from four-year baccalaureate programs.
I also strongly believe that government investment in essential infrastructure, if done properly and strategically, yields exponentially higher returns to taxpayers than anything other than scientific and medical research. Our neighborhoods are built around our schools, and our downtowns are built around our city halls and our courthouses.
Senate Bill 204 provided my hometown, Alexandria, with more than $20 million to build a brand-new community college campus, but one of the requirements of the law is that the private-sector or an entity other than the state government matches at least 10%.
Alexandria desperately needs a more robust and more modern community and technical college campus. It needs a campus that is accessible and centrally-located. Students need to be able to walk or ride their bicycles or hop on a city bus to go to school, and considering Alexandria is already a small city, it shouldn’t be unreasonable for them to expect to be on campus within five minutes. A community college should, by its very definition, be a part of its community.
Fortunately, there is a simple and obvious site for this future campus: Downtown Alexandria. With a $20+ million investment, a community college could transform Downtown Alexandria overnight. But it wouldn’t just be catalytic for Downtown, it’d be the single largest investment in public infrastructure (which would be matched by at least 10% from the private-sector) in Alexandria since the Versailles road expansion project, which has opened up at least $250 million in private investment opportunities.
There’s only one problem: Louisiana State University at Alexandria (LSUA) wants that money too, and they’re also bidding for the community college.
I’m not going to pull any punches here: I love the people at LSUA. My mother is an LSUA graduate. My Aunt Sue Eakin worked there for much of her career and bequeathed her entire archive (which I believe is valued at around $300,000) to LSUA. And I know other members of my family have done even more to support LSUA, though I’d prefer not to publicize their charity.
If you’re not from Alexandria, you may be under the impression that LSUA, as its name suggests, is in Alexandria. It’s not. It’s 10 or 15 miles away, out in the country, and its nickname is “the farm.” I don’t blame anyone in particular for the fact that LSUA is, in my personal opinion, stupidly located. I fully understand that back in the 1960s, when it was founded, cheap farmland in the country made more economic sense, and I suppose some people were convinced that the city would eventually come to them. But it never did, and it never will. And, after finally recognizing this, LSUA has spent the last twenty years attempting to correct the mistake of its poor location: Building generic student housing, incentivizing a couple of cheap restaurants, marketing a golf course.
LSUA needs to make a decision: It needs to either fully embrace itself as a four-year undergraduate institution, or its leadership and those responsible for pushing through the four-year program need to write letters of apology to each and every elected official who opposed their expansion.
For the first time in over a generation, Alexandria has the opportunity to expand its community college in its actual community, and ironically, the only people standing in the way are those who insisted LSUA was not and would never again be defined as a “community college.” I’ve reviewed LSUA’s proposal, and essentially, it is merely offering publicly-owned facilities to the public; that’s not a real proposal for a “community college,” though. It is nothing more than a plea for the state to spend more than $20 million on a community college in the countryside.
And that’s not fair to Alexandria. It’s not fair for community college students. It misses the point, and to me, it looks like a money grab from the very people opposed to a community college in the first place.
For once, I hope we can be smart about our investments in infrastructure, because, ultimately, the goal is to build together.