1. Opinion

Ryan and his hero would hurt education

Published Aug. 18, 2012

Until recently, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate, bragged about being a devotee of Ayn Rand, the Russian-American novelist who developed the philosophy of objectivism.

The philosophy maintains that laissez-faire capitalism is the perfect economic system. As such, all people should be free to pursue their own self-interest. The individual should not worry about the collective. It is all about self.

The tenets of objectivism, championed by many Republicans, are demonstrated in Rand's best-known novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Ryan, first elected to Congress in 1998, has said during interviews that he started reading Rand in high school and credits Atlas Shrugged for triggering his interest in economics. "I give out Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and I make my interns read it,'' he told one interviewer. "Well … I try to make my interns read it."

Now, because he wants to be vice president and is under the harsh light of the media, Ryan is trying to partially distance himself from Rand. "I reject her philosophy," he told National Review recently. "It's an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview."

Do not believe him, especially when it comes to public education, higher education in particular. If Romney defeats President Barack Obama, Ryan's influence will be certain. Romney already has called the Wisconsin congressman's budget proposals "marvelous." Voters who apprehend the enduring value of public education and who care about the nation as a viable economic competitor around the globe should be concerned.

As chairman of the House Budget Committee and the architect of a House budget plan to sharply cut discretionary spending, Ryan emphasizes self-interest and the separation of education and the state, closely mirroring Rand, who disdained government funding of education.

In his plan for fiscal 2013, "The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal," Ryan proposes slashing federal funds for research at public universities, student loans and the Pell Grant program, which is the primary source of financial aid for low-income students. During interviews, he has said that spending more on student aid is unreasonable and represents "new unfunded liabilities."

Like Rand, he believes that when the government increases student aid, institutions raise tuition. "The goal of federal financial aid is to make college more affordable, but there is growing evidence that wholesale increases in aid have had the opposite effect," he wrote in a recent column. "Instead of helping more students achieve their dreams, these increases are simply being absorbed by (and potentially enabling) large tuition increases."

There are two problems with that line of thinking: First, Ryan fails to offer solid evidence to support his claim. Second, he does not mention that as state governments cut funding, public institutions of higher learning are being forced to raise tuition and other fees, not to mention implementing hiring freezes and eliminating courses and entire departments.

On his website, he wrote: "Rather than relying on the federal government to ensure students are given the capability to fulfill their potential, education ought to be governed by state and local boards more ably qualified to determine student need."

Again, pulling a page out of Atlas Shrugged, Ryan is a staunch supporter of for-profit institutions. He went along, for example, with House Republicans last year in rejecting the White House's "gainful employment" regulations that were designed to guarantee that federal money is helping students attend programs that prepare them for well-paying jobs. Evidence shows that most for-profits flunk the gainful employment test.

Public schools also are in Ryan's sights. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has warned that the Ryan budget potentially could wipe $2.7 billion out of the $14.5 billion the federal government provides to poor school districts in Title I funds. At least $2.2 billion, Duncan said, would be cut from special education programs.

Rand claimed that "of all the government undertakings, none has failed so disastrously as public education. The scope, the depth, and the evidence of this failure are observable all around us."

Based on much of what Ryan has said about public education, he apparently still agrees with his hero.