Guess who’s getting the state back into State U? Hint: They only sound like socialists.
Today let’s play a little political guessing game.
Recently a politician gave a rousing speech at the state Capitol in Olympia. The gist was that in the past five years, we have sold out the founding promise of our state’s college system. Which was to provide, at taxpayer expense, affordable higher education for everyone.
Where once the state paid three-fourths of any student’s tuition at the University of Washington, repeated budget cuts drove that down to only 30 percent. Going to zero was no longer unthinkable.
“We were looking at the full-scale privatization in this state of a wonderful public higher-education system,” the politician said.
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He then exhorted his colleagues to pour millions of dollars into colleges to reverse this trend. Only then could UW and other schools go back to furthering equality and opportunity, as they were set up to do.
The guessing game is: Which party do you think this politician belongs to?
If you answered “neither, he sounds like a socialist,” you’d be forgiven based on the content. That’s what I get called every time I’ve made these same arguments.
But in fact it was one of many similar-sounding speeches that day from a Republican. The quotes above are from state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.
What’s happening in Olympia — in which Republicans have transmogrified into the higher-education party — isn’t just rhetoric. The budget they passed through the Senate boosts spending on the state’s flagship school, the UW, by an enormous 34 percent compared with the last two-year budget.
What’s new is that almost all of that would go to students in an unprecedented slashing of tuition, from an average of $11,695 now to $8,324 in 2017 — a cut of 29 percent. (Not all fees charged by UW are included in these figures.)
The budget also keeps the universities whole (it backfills the millions of dollars in tuition cuts with state support to the schools). So the Republicans’ move, if approved, would be a huge step toward putting the “public” back in our public universities.
The socialistic bent of all this took people by surprise, especially Democrats. It’s not only more money for higher ed than Democrats have proposed (by about $40 million). But Republicans have crafted a sort of middle-class echo to the Democrats’ minimum-wage movement. Their plan seeks to set a maximum tuition, indexed to the state’s average wage, similar to how the minimum wage is tied to inflation. All to subsidize more kids going to college.
Remember when one of the GOP’s top presidential candidates, Rick Santorum, called President Obama a “snob” for wanting everybody to go to college?
“I was surprised at how aggressive their plan is, and how liberal their arguments sounded,” said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, who voted for the GOP plan when it came through the Senate. “I couldn’t help but wish it had been us putting forth these ideas.”
“Still can’t get over how WA Dems let the GOP lead on cutting college tuition,” tweeted Robert Cruickshank, a Seattle-based campaign organizer for Democracy for America, a progressive activist group.
There are big concerns about how Republicans would pay for all this. The GOP budget attempts to do it without tax increases, and it may shortchange social services and other important programs. Personally I bet they’ll be forced to choose between cutting tuition less than this, or raising taxes.
I also think there are issues at the UW surrounding quality (such as overcrowded classes and too few course offerings). These also need attention and probably money. It’s important that tuition cuts don’t water down the education.
But two years ago the support for college here was so dismal I wrote this: “How we milked the public university system in this state and then starved it will go down as the great badge of shame of my generation and the one before mine, the baby boomers.”
That it’s the starve-the-government party that’s now doing the most to put the state back into state college is a very welcome change to all that.