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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Education, Blackouts, and Privatization – Editorial 2/26/04

The Massachusetts higher education system is under pressure to produce more with less. While overall funding has declined 18% in just two years, statutes added in June 2003 are demanding public universities and colleges meet higher performance standards.

Last week, the first “Accountability Report,” detailing the performance of state and community colleges, was released by the Board of Higher Education. It is providing more evidence that public higher education system is in decline.

Nobody would oppose a higher education system that performs with the best of the nation’s schools, and policymakers claim these guidelines will help improve the system. But this is disingenuous rhetoric; the course of this policy is disastrous for public higher education. Let’s take a lesson from the massive blackout that spread across the Northeast this summer: demanding higher outputs from a system with a stagnant infrastructure often leads to overload.

By 2006, state and community colleges will have to meet more than 30 benchmark standards or face losing more funding. Government appointees are currently working to determine a set of benchmark standards for UMass as well. Budgets will be frozen unless cash-strapped students become top-notch graduates. In order to comply with these standards, academic freedom will be curbed in order to revamp curriculums, and jobs and services will be threatened in order to reduce spending.

The logic behind policymakers’ thinking is that administrators (who spend too much), teachers (who earn too much), and students (who are not disciplined enough) should shoulder some of the blame for declining test scores that result from under funding education. A smokescreen of statistics is being thrown up to prevent some education advocates, like the Massachusetts Teachers Association, from challenging the state to overhaul the antiquated funding structure to meet the needs of public education.

The public should be gravely concerned about the future of higher education in Massachusetts. Last year, Governor Romney introduced the idea of privatization as a solution for troubles at UMass. Increasingly, privatization is being brought up as an option when the government fails to provide resources that allow schools to perform.

In 2002, low performance ratings, based on standardized test scores, were used as justification for the state seizure and subsequent privatization of dozens of schools in Philadelphia. These schools “failed” because policymakers drastically cut education spending, just as they’ve been doing in the Massachusetts higher education system.

On the eve of the Massachusetts state budget crisis, funding for higher education, in terms of a percent of the state’s budget, was already among the lowest in the nation. Without proper support, it’s no wonder last week the Board of Higher Education reported graduation rates among the lowest in the nation.

The Legislature cannot have it both ways. The quality of education won’t improve without increased funding. As performance-based funding is implemented, reports will in turn suggest the system is broken, and voices will demand solutions. Either the Legislature will have to increase taxes, or more public resources will have to be sold off. We all know the food provided by Sodexho is awful and too pricey. Imagine if Sodexho, or another company, managed more than just the cafeteria.