Will America continue to have a public education system?

Two news stories prompt the question. The first comes from the New York Times analysis of the recent budget cuts in California, which have hit the state's premier higher education system very hard.


The state's two-tier system has long been seen as a model of public higher education, with the University of California's 10 campuses as major research hubs and the California State University's network of 23 campuses graduating tens of thousands each year. But the cuts, which are the biggest in the state's history, threaten to erode the system's stellar reputation.

"There's no question that California has had the most emulated public universities in the nation, and for the rest of the world," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "What we are seeing is the abandonment of the state's commitment to make California's education available to all its citizens."

The architecture for the system came from California's Master Plan during the 1960s, a time when Berkeley was among the great universities of the nation (and led by one of the greats of higher education administration - Clark Kerr, known for coining the term multiversity). The destruction of those dreams is shocking when one considers that the system lasted only about a single generation - far shorter than the visionaries behind it intended.

The second story comes from Minnesota, where the state government continues to be shut down over an impasse regarding the state's budget. The Star Tribune's introduction says it all:

Budget talks have produced few clues about how Minnesota's historic government shutdown will end, except for one: Schools likely will pay the price for yet another stalemate in St. Paul.

The state intends to withhold payment to the schools so that the money flows from a different fiscal year.

America's public education system has been under attack for decades, but it seems to me that there have been few times in the nation's history of public education that the need for its services has been so high and the consensus to fund it has been so difficult to find. While private institutions in many instances provide an equivalent service to the public due to their mission statements (and tax incentives), there are large cultural differences between public and private institutions.

Most notably, private institutions by and large lack the access of public education. They don't take as many students, nor do they prioritize opening up their institutions as wide as possible. Our hybrid system of private/flagship public institutions and state college systems at the tertiary level, and similar divide at the K-12 level serves us well - there are options for everyone. What will happen though if one half of that hybrid suddenly peters out from lack of nourishment? Rising inequality, even beyond that of the large 20 years, will almost certainly be the largest first order consequence.

Let's remember that the students coming up in the system today will be working until sometime in the 2050 and 2060s (and with medical innovation, possibly even longer). They are also the financial supporters of the coming wave of baby boom retirements. Social Security is mostly funded by income - revenues that come in from payroll taxes go out as remittances to retirees. Thus, the financial security of Social Security is dependent on educating the future workforce.

We have to take that long view, because it will be too late to train and educate our students if we wait too long. To create the kind of growing, stable country that we desire, some sacrifice will have to be involved for all. I don't see that coming in California, and despite a pretty positive track record, it looks as though it is not coming in Minnesota. That's unfortunate, because creating a role model here might have assisted the federal debt discussion. Public education is an absolute necessity, and it is time we recognized it with our wallets and not just our speech.