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Bob Graham

Add funding, subtract politics

Gov. Charlie Crist has announced a plan to finance Florida's university system for the next eight years. His plan would have the Florida Legislature authorize the statewide Board of Governors and individual university boards of trustees to raise tuition at all 11 universities by up to 15 percent a year until the average tuition equals the average public university tuition nationwide.

Florida's public universities are in desperate need of new resources, and the governor has shown political courage in proposing a solution. But his plan, while well-intentioned, may provide a short-term infusion of cash without providing the long-term funding stability that our universities need and deserve. That goal will require a governance structure that values visionary, nonpartisan leadership over politics as usual.

Anyone who has followed Florida higher education issues knows that our public colleges and universities have suffered both financially and organizationally. Today, Florida's average annual funding per student in the state university system, adjusted for inflation, is nearly $5,000 less than it was in 1990.

This precipitous decline has produced severe consequences. In 2007, the University of Florida had one of the highest student-faculty ratios of all the state research universities in the country: 21.7 to 1. Our economy has also been negatively impacted. Twenty years ago, when Florida reached the upper 25 percent of states in higher education funding, high technology jobs were flowing into the state. Our per capita income was 1 percent above the national average. Today, the high technology flow has dried up and Florida's per capita income is almost 2 percent below the national average.

Financial problems have been exacerbated by organizational chaos. For much of the 20th century, our state universities were governed by a citizen Board of Regents. In 2000, for reasons having more to do with pique and politics than good policymaking, the Legislature abolished the Board of Regents and assumed control of higher education. Florida became the only state without a citizen board devoted to university governance. But Floridians remedied that error. In November 2002, 62 percent of voters chose to amend the Florida Constitution and create a Board of Governors with constitutional authority to govern the state universities.

Over the last 6 ½ years, the board has increasingly moved to exercise its full authority over the state university system. The Legislature has fought to keep what it sees as its authority. In 2007, a group of citizens and the board asked the courts to resolve the dispute and decide what authority voters intended when they gave the board responsibility for the university system. The case is pending.

My concern with Crist's proposal is that it erroneously presumes that the Florida Legislature has the power to set tuition rates. Since that issue is still before the courts, the governor's actions could potentially pre-empt a judicial decision that may settle the question of university governance.

But the bigger problem with the governor's presumption is that it threatens the reinfiltration of legislative politics into higher education policy. The Legislature does not have the best track record when it comes to school governance. The dismantling of the Board of Regents in 2000 is one example. Another took place in 1986, when legislators promised that Florida lottery revenue would be used to enhance state support of secondary and elementary education. That promise proved to be false.

If Crist asks the Legislature to authorize tuition increases before the courts decide the question of tuition-setting authority, he will risk the same bait-and-switch that occurred with lottery funds. Nothing could be worse for our universities' long-term financial prospects than to increase tuition for the purpose of raising needed revenue, and have the Legislature respond by cutting state support.

Given his clear commitment to improving the higher educational outlook, Crist may want to emulate another Republican governor who recently confronted the same issue. In 2004, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the regents of the University of California and California State University systems entered into a governing compact. Their agreement recognizes that the Legislature is in charge of appropriating public funds and the regents have the authority to set tuition. Under the compact, Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature agreed to increase per student funding by 4 percent annually. The state government has the right to make budget cuts in fiscally difficult years but only after the annual funding increase is calculated and applied. The university systems agreed to link tuition increases to the growth of per capita personal income in California but retained the right to increase tuition by a designated percentage in recessionary periods like this one. Most importantly, the compact prohibits the governor and Legislature from using tuition increases to justify further cuts in state support. California cannot play the shell game with tuition that Florida did with lottery funds.

Florida could easily establish a similar relationship between its elected officials and a constitutionally independent Board of Governors, with the specifics tailored for our state. If we do, Florida will have a stable tuition policy that enhances the quality of our universities, provides access to higher education for qualified students, and supports the critical role that universities play in drawing high-paying jobs to Florida.

Bob Graham is a former U.S. senator, governor and state legislator. He led the successful 2002 effort to amend the state Constitution to create the Board of Governors to oversee higher education. He is the author of a college textbook to be published in April titled, America: The Owner's Manual.

Add funding, subtract politics 03/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 8, 2009 1:53am]

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