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Shifting Political Dynamics

Shifting Political Dynamics
An Uncertain Political and Economic Climate Poses New Challenges to the Future of Higher Education
By Page Boinest Melton

Experts reading the tea leaves from November’s elections see some challenging days ahead for public support of higher education. The good news is that voters see education as a top priority and endorsed education-specific ballot initiatives to pump more construction and scholarship money into colleges and universities. Yet the majority of voters also expressed a smaller-government, anti-tax sentiment at the polls Nov. 5 — a sentiment that recasts state legislatures and the Congress in a more conservative mold.

Add the backdrop of a still-struggling economy to the new political mix and the lust for major new expenditures subsides. “There has been a shift,” says Jim Watts, vice president of state affairs for the Southern Regional Education Board. “While there is a more bipartisan agreement about the priority of education, there may be a difference of opinions about how to go about emphasizing that priority.”

Few understand those priorities better than voters in Tennessee, who for years have resisted enacting a state income tax to generate cash for services including higher education. Reliance on the state’s sales tax, coupled with Tennessee’s stumbling economy, have triggered massive budget deficits, deep spending cuts, double-digit tuition increases, even a brief government shutdown. Without a longer term funding source, says Dr. Rodney Stanley at Tennessee State University’s Institute for Government, “the only way to raise the necessary income for higher education is to keep raising the price of public education. Tennessee is going to find it’s cheaper for a lot of students to go to school out of state.”

State Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, put the education argument to work this election season, leading a winning campaign to lift Tennessee’s ban on a lottery. Now Cohen is drafting legislation to create a lottery to pump more money into college scholarships, with an undetermined mix of merit- and need-based financial aid. Voter support for the lottery is a start, Cohen says, but the numbers game can only “supplement, not supplant” spending for higher education. “Education is the most important component and it’s not being funded adequately,” he says. “People are just not fond of taxes at any level.”

That’s what voters seemed to be saying in the past election. In a remarkable showing for mid-term elections, Republicans regained control of the U.S. Senate and added to their margin in the House of Representatives, cementing majorities inclined toward smaller government and lower taxes. Republicans outnumber Democrats in state legislatures for the first time in 50 years and GOP governors still slightly outnumber their Democratic counterparts. “The first thing one would do is go to a polarized way of thinking that Republicans would not spend money on schools and Democrats would spend money on schools,” says longtime education advocate David Coleman, marketing director for “Somewhere in the middle is the truth.”

Most experts expect more talk of budget cuts and a tighter rein on spending, given the partisan shifts and the soft economy. “It’s going to be a more conservative Congress,” says Travis Reindl, assistant to the president at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. While he sees consensus on many philosophical non-spending issues, and much common ground on reauthorization of the higher education bill, “we may see more contentiousness over funding.”

Members of Congress will be otherwise distracted, with reordered spending priorities to address terrorism and the potential war with Iraq, says Dr. Toni-Michelle Travis, associate professor in the department of public and international affairs at George Mason University in Virginia. “The money has got to go into homeland security and defense. I think we’re back to a military industrial complex age of priorities.”

Still, the states will drive much of the funding and policy decisions immediately affecting campuses, and higher education was a primary topic in most state races. While few states can entertain major increases in campus operating support, newly elected decision-makers will debate whether to carve out education from budget cuts and shield schools from across-the-board spending curbs.

The Southern Regional Education Board’s Watts remains optimistic, detecting universal support for education and an “understanding that many groups of children who weren’t educated at high levels before must be educated at high levels today.” The question that remains is how states will address that concern, either through higher tuition and fees, new revenue streams, changes in financial aid or a combination of all three.

Some states are coming off election seasons with targeted directives from voters favoring higher education. Voters supported initiatives like California’s $13 billion bond package, which includes financing for campus construction.

In tax-averse Virginia, voters in two regions rejected heavily lobbied increases in the sales tax to build much-needed roads, but overwhelmingly supported a bond measure that devotes nearly $900 million to higher education construction, including key projects for historically Black colleges and universities. “Education still enjoys a different level of scrutiny than other public services,” Reindl says. “Voters have the sense that colleges got the hell knocked out of them. Here was something on the ballot that could help and wasn’t going to raise their taxes.”

Elsewhere, Florida voters supported a new governance structure expected to give public colleges and universities more muscle. Michigan voters, given the choice between spending tobacco settlement money on scholarships and increasing health spending, sided with education. With a few exceptions, voters also approved most ballot measures aiding K-12 education, including smaller class sizes and pre-school funding in Florida and a massive expansion of before- and after-school programs in California. And in some states, the revenue argument held: Massachusetts voters rejected an initiative that would have eliminated the state personal income tax and Arkansans turned back a plan to end sales tax on food and medicine.

All of those state campaigns signaled an emerging political dynamic that may be the true legacy of the 2002 elections. College and university leaders who once spent the fall overseeing the start of the new academic year instead hit the campaign trail this season, promoting bond packages, scholarship support and budget issues. With voters in a protect-the-pocketbook frame of mind, university activists can expect to engage more often in political campaigns if they want public support for college campuses, says George Mason’s Travis. “Administrations believe they must obviously and visibly support funding for higher education,” she says. “They do not take it for granted that the public understands where the money for higher education comes from, not any longer.”

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