Whence the Threat to Higher Education?
by Jill Docking
Gov. Brownback is currently on tour around the state, touting his support for higher education. Recently I attended one of these meetings, at the Rotary Club in Wichita. The governor recognizes that, in order to stay competitive nationally and internationally, we must fund higher education, so he proposes that our current budget remain flat – that we not cut higher education funding further. This is in apparent opposition to cuts to higher education currently being discussed in both the Kansas House and Senate.
Taken on its face, the governor’s endorsement of “no cuts” sounds like support, even the work of a savior. But when you take a look at the history of funding for the Regent institutions in Kansas, it becomes apparent that the governor is advocating for maintaining, not adequate funding, but recession-level funding. In fact, the entire conversation is taking place in the context of the governor’s massive, and ill-advised, income tax cuts. That’s what’s causing the problem.
If you eliminate “the goodies” the governor gives out occasionally for workforce programs and look solely at the core education funding, the trajectory from FY08 through FY12 shows a clear decline in state funding of higher education: nearly -11% in raw numbers, and remarkably, nearly -19.5% in inflation-adjusted numbers.
As a Regent from 2007-2010, I watched Kansas plunge off the steep cliff of the national recession. Gov. Parkinson, in my opinion, navigated this treacherous decline in revenues brilliantly: he managed to put together a coalition of pro-education Republicans and Democrats to pass a temporary sales tax that was meant to help us hold on until the recession was over and we could return to funding levels commensurate with Kansas’ historical commitment to investment in higher education. The higher education community, understanding that this massive recession would require cuts, acted as a team player with Gov. Parkinson and pro-education leaders in the state. We tried to position the Regent institutions to use Federal stimulus dollars wisely, so that we would be prepared to emerge from the recession in a strong, competitive position.
At the time, none of us could anticipate the ill-conceived Brownback “experiment” of cutting taxes just as we were emerging from the recession. In order to fund these “experimental” business and personal income tax cuts, we are being forced to lock education funding into recession levels for the foreseeable future. In other words, the baseline spending that the governor is defending as higher education’s savior is actually drastically reduced resources devoted to higher education.
It’s an interesting “experiment,” leading one to wonder: who asked for it, who is paying for it, and who will be in Iowa and New Hampshire running for President when the cuts to pay for it are made?
And what if the experiment fails? The governor’s massive tax cuts have crippled funding for higher education, keeping us in a permanent recession mode for the foreseeable future. If and when we come to our senses, what will we have done to our competitive standing, nationally and internationally? Higher education is a very competitive business. We will lose our most talented students, faculty and researchers to those states with the commitment to education that Kansas has had for generations, but currently, apparently, lacks.
The only “good” that comes from a recession is that everyone emerges leaner: individuals reduce debt, corporations and public institutions cut excess programs and personnel. Higher education in Kansas is leaner today than it has had to be in the past. The danger is that those states reinvesting in higher education after the recession will prey on our talent pool – at the cost of Kansas’ future economic competitiveness.
When you understand this context, you come to realize that the governor is not solving the problem of adequate funding of higher education – he is exacerbating it.
Expenditures from the State General Fund Institutions only
FY 2008 $638.5M
FY 2009 $615.2M
FY 2010 $573.7M
FY 2011 $580.6M
FY 2012 $569.0M
Source: Governor’s Budget Report