Halt the hatchet to higher education

Early last week, Texans for a Conservative Budget, a coalition composed of powerful small-government proponents, released a proposal containing solutions for the current state budget deficit. But the proposed “solutions” are misleading. The proposal calls for working out an admittedly flawed budget but addresses the problem with spending cuts to programs that already endured austerity-inspired slashing this past legislative session — including ones to higher education.

The plan aims to “revamp” higher education, simultaneously implying that the budget deficit results from allegedly wasteful universities and then dismissing any argument that the higher education funding structure itself is a problem. Conspicuously, the proposal says that higher education funding should be shifted toward “student-centered” funding, though it is hard to imagine how further limiting that budget could benefit students. Presumably, the approach that insists on “streamlining” and “efficiency,” by some convoluted logic, would assist students by forcing their universities to spend smarter. Unfortunately that has not been the case.

While Texans for a Conservative Budget blithely proposes a simple 3-percent budget reduction, UT students will be facing a budget reduction of their own in the form of a 3-percent tuition hike. The coalition’s student-centered funding model was indeed centered on students — but only in the sense that students ended up absorbing most of the cost.

Going beyond direct effects on higher education’s budget, the proposition calls for an elimination of Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund, a program used to attract employers to the state. The elimination of the successful program, in part responsible for maintaining the state’s low unemployment rate, would be a mistake. Most recently, the Texas Enterprise Fund and its city-level equivalent came under fire for providing subsidies to Apple, which was deciding whether to locate a new facility in Austin that will provide 3,600 high-wage jobs. Thanks to the incentives, UT students will be able to work at one of the country’s most innovative high-tech companies. The development would continue an interesting trend: 2 percent of all Apple employees are UT graduates, according to Business Insider.

The coalition’s member groups — most notably, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Americans for Prosperity — are an amalgamation of budget-cutting muscle that have proven their ability to strong-arm the state Legislature into getting controversial cuts passed. Last year, the alliance fought to restrain the Legislature from using the state’s Rainy Day Fund, though Texas faced an unprecedented budget crisis. In all likelihood, the coalition’s members will be able to successfully lobby legislators on at least some of the plan’s provisions during the next session.

And at the root of that lobbying, coalition member Julie Drenner told The Texas Tribune, is one basic choice for each state program: “Do [we] reform it, or do [we] eliminate it?” By outlining the budget discussion in such limited terms, the proposal sets universities up to fail by making them an enemy. But by fostering an educated workforce, higher education can be one of the state’s greatest advocates for economic development and, in tandem, fiscal responsibility — but only if it is allowed to do so. Texans for a Conservative Budget proposes fiscal responsibility, but defunding higher education is exactly the kind of irresponsibility it vilifies.