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Column: Florida should invest more in public education

From at least the time of Thomas Jefferson, education in this country was considered not simply a personal but a public good. When Jefferson said, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people," his countrymen believed it. When he called for "a system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens, from the richest to the poorest," they supported it.

Education, and in particular publicly supported education, was considered the indispensable foundation to a democracy. Anything less supported the view — widely held in Jefferson's day — that a monarchy was the only competent form of government and that public education was not only unnecessary but a sure cause of turmoil among the governed.

It was Scotsman John Knox, the fiery, troublesome Presbyterian clergyman and rabble-rouser who, in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation as it threw off the monarch-like hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, helped establish the first public schools in modern history. The Presbyterian Scots developed the finest schools and colleges in the world, and many of its students and ideas made their way to America and taught, among others, Thomas Jefferson. Those ideas and values showed up in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

Never in the history of the Republic has this fundamental, formative commitment to education, particularly public education, as a public (not simply private) good been more under attack than over the past decade. With respect to public education, we have lost our historical and our moral moorings. Florida's recently concluded legislative session did little to reverse this sad trajectory of divesting in public education.

Public funding for education diminished in nearly every state over the past decade, but it diminished precipitously in Florida:

• Florida's support for public education in K-12 will rise in 2014-15 but still will be less than it was in 2007-08. The appropriation for public higher education by the Legislature is 30 percent less than it was in 2007. Yet tuition since then has increased by more than 25 percent.

• Many states, Florida included, spent many more (if not all) of their college scholarship dollars on the basis of previous academic success (nearly always biased toward higher family income) than on the basis of need. This is a pernicious, but effective, way to minimize access to students from poorer families.

• State universities were created according to the Jeffersonian ideal of education as a public good, and land-grant universities were created specifically to make a public investment in students from the middle and lower socioeconomic strata of the country. But there is almost no trace of that vital, very American mission in the current land-grant universities.

• The pullback of public funding for higher education has been accompanied by the essential disappearance of the second mortgage market, a casualty of the recession which began in 2008, by which many parents financed their children's college expenses. The resulting idea, that students should finance their own education through loans, is a very new and unfortunate idea, aided and abetted by the federal government's minimally regulated loan policies. The student loan business has changed college-going in almost entirely negative ways.

It is true that the Legislature appropriated $50 million this year for K-12 facilities. But that is $50 million for 67 counties, and Hillsborough alone has 200,000 students: Do, as they say, the math.

As president of a private college, I applaud the governor and Legislature for the increase in the Florida Resident Access Grant, which will now provide $3,000 to Floridians who attend private colleges and universities in Florida. That is indeed a smart way to take some of the enrollment pressure off the public universities.

But there is simply no way to begin to address issues of equal opportunity and income disparity in this country, or with improving the quality of individual lives and our civic lives, without a stronger commitment to the founding idea that publicly supported education is a public good. We citizens must do more to remind our public leaders of that historic and fundamentally American idea, and expect them to make it a reality in Florida.

Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Florida should invest more in public education 05/15/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014 4:25pm]
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