Sunday, September 28, 2008

University of Wisconsin funding

I'm bypassing Safire this morning (Bor. Ing.), stepping past the prez debates (lots of 'parsing words' in there, though), passing in silence over Jan Freeman's fine recent columns, and holding off a bit on commenting more on those Zimmerian "sandwich words".* Instead, let's talk about funding for the University of Wisconsin.

The public discourse about higher education here has started to change in a positive way. For decades Wisconsin's political and economic powers agreed on the value of a strong university system and accessible affordable education for its citizens. I've talked before about the catastrophic breakdown of that consensus, along with the demonizing of UW by self-serving morons, just while national funding for education has been going over the cliff. Eventually, we had to pull things back toward the side of what is good and right.

Our local Wisconsin State Journal — a basically conservative paper — has an editorial this morning arguing for the University as an economic engine for the state. The editors get a lot right in this column, but include this:
… over time, higher education in Wisconsin is slowly eroding. State funding isn't even close to keeping up with inflation. Legitimate concern by state lawmakers about increasing tuition has limited another main source of income for state schools.
Eroding, yes. Slowly, no. But it sounds like they're endorsing even MORE tuition increases. That's socially and politically insane: Socially, because we're dependent as a society on educating the smartest people, not the richest. Politically, because too many taxpayers are already unable to send their kids to UW schools and the resentment is palpable.

Why can't we increase university funding? We can pay our do-nothing legislature among the highest salaries in the country, end our estate tax, and increase 'corrections' funding constantly, while the amount of state-local taxes paid per person has now dropped below the national average.

The WSJ editorial, along with a ton of other press and media in the state this week, was prompted by a study by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. (It looks like you have to contact them for the full report.) In inflation adjusted dollars, state support for the UW System has dropped $50 million over the last 25 years, according to WTA:
In 2006-07 dollars, the UW received $1.09 billion from the state in 1983. That peaked at $1.23 billion in 2000-01, and stood at $1.04 billion in 2006-07. Final figures were not available for 2007-08.
That's for the whole System. UW-Madison's budget for 08-09 is $2.4 billion. $492 million of that came from the state. Just fyi, last year $1.2 billion went to corrections, and even more to debt costs.

Bottom line: We don't need to charge private-school tuition to fix this, and we can't afford the divide-and-conquer mentality that comes with that idea. We need to get our fiscal house in order at a more basic level. Like with the Washington meltdown (a word Jan Freeman talked about last week), it's time we voted in people who will make fundamentally sound decisions about where money comes from and where it goes to. Me, I want the rich to pay their fair share and the rest of us to get our fair share in investments in the future of our state and country.

*But more on that to come. And I owe Ben Zimmer a very belated hat tip for the reminder on verbage. I just wasn't feeling snarky enough to light into that one.


John Cowan said...

In short, public education is a public good. Like other public goods, it should be funded by taxes on the unimproved value of land, the value of natural resources at the point of extraction, and the value of state-granted franchises. That way we avoid taxing wages (which punishes people for working hard) or interest/profits (which punishes people for investing wisely).

Adam Ussishkin said...

Any positive development is incredible - wow! Here at the University of Arizona, every single college, unit, and department is facing "reorganization" and "restructuring", so you can imagine the stress and anxiety among faculty, especially in a state where the legislature doesn't value (higher) education. We could be on a sinking ship here.