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Jindal protecting higher education serves political goals

Perhaps the most unexpected budget decision made by Gov. Bobby Jindal for fiscal year 2010-11 was to make only a relatively small reduction to money going to higher education management boards and none others. As he and others elaborate on their thinking towards higher education funding, the potential rationales for this become clearer.

After priming the world for a large round of cuts to all of higher education with the establishment of the Postsecondary Education Review Commission by the Legislature, which teed up recommendations that could justify tens of millions of dollars in reductions, then Jindal basically used the budget to impose just one of them, consolidation of system governance. Jindal’s explanation was that, after facing a quarter billion dollars of downsizing over the past 14 months, the system needed time to adjust to that.

Jindal did propose cutting some other areas, quite significantly, and continued relatively smaller cuts to health care which prompted immediate complaint from a hospital group representative. Also, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee state Rep. Jim Fannin indicated his panel might be in a cutting mood – meaning higher education delivery would be the most likely and most affected area subject to this – to prepare better the state for the 2011-12 cycle which is predicted even worse for deficits. Jindal has some influence over Fannin – nobody that opposes often or on particularly big issues the governor gets to run a legislative committee – so Fannin must feel he has the means to embark upon this course successfully. Jindal, then, must have some strategy in mind to articulate protecting higher education at the expense of other things and maybe against the wishes of legislators.

Notably, Jindal was once head of what is now the University of Louisiana system and also he was not and did not have a great deal of input into the genesis and operation of PERC. This gives him somewhat of an independent streak in how he wants to deal with reform of higher education delivery. Further, he may be counting on precisely the reason why Fannin thought it might be better to make bigger cuts now than next year, that next year will be an election year. While Fannin may see that as an impediment to cutting, as legislators don’t want to remove things that they could get credited for that could help their reelection, Jindal may not see that as a problem for his reelection chances given his popularity and that he is not subject to parochial constituency desires.

In fact, he may be counting on another aspect to next year’s budgeting that could be used for political purposes: next year, the Legislature may take up fiscal matters including tax increases which it cannot do this year (unless in special session). It could be that Jindal wants to show in his budgeting that he can produce one without a tax increase (as he has stated countless times how he will not raise taxes). Some legislators may be clamoring for one in that environment but Jindal would seal reelection by appearing to stand up against them.

More specifically concerning higher education, Jindal may think this course has better chances of producing the reform actually needed. Often, Jindal has stated his preferences about reform: besides governance consolidation, also higher admission standards for baccalaureate institutions and more emphasis on community and technical college provision of learning, with performance standards including increased graduation rates for all campuses. As part of the fix, schools would get greater leeway and less interference from the Legislature in setting tuition rates.

This session could produce the bill that allows tuition to go up. In exchange for that, Jindal may hope that higher education will pursue the goals of creating realistic performance indicators and boosting admissions standards (which will create a natural shift of enrollments to two-year and below institutions), in addition to his monetary prodding of system consolidation. He always could threaten higher education with failure to pass the bill unless it makes a lot of progress before the middle of July on these matters. That approach may be more effective at producing workable reform than initiating the crisis sooner that could lend itself to emphasizing the short-term at the expense of the long-term instead.

It also may be the best tool to getting the Legislature to act on another Jindal idea. Higher education stands the greatest risk of cutting because the state’s fiscal structure creates great inflexibility in budgeting through dedication of funding sources. Jindal tried last session to get this addressed to begin a process of removing dedications but the Legislature was cool to that notion. By proposing to make the crisis hit later – and during an election year – Jindal may figure that this will provide extra impetus for the Legislature to follow his wishes on this now so the mechanism is in place next year as a method to handle cuts which will allow reduced cuts to higher education.

Thus, delaying a potential day of reckoning (besides buying time for miracles) serves several Jindal purposes. It creates incentives he may feel optimal to produce the reforms he sees needed in higher education. It gives him leverage to get other, related reform measures passed. It positions him well politically in an election year. And even if the Legislature shows great will on its own and passes out an operating budget (for example, not allowing one-time money to prop up higher education spending) that forces more cuts on higher education in a way Jindal cannot use his veto powers to stop, at least he can claim he tried to protect higher education. Understood this way, his budgetary choices do not seem that surprising.


kantian said...

The University of Louisiana system is responding to the Jindal plan of reform in higher education by lowering the requirements for graduation from 125 hours to 120 hours and the University of Louisiana at Monroe is responding by forcing faculty to eliminate major electives and replace them with college electives to make the majors easier. ULM has already tried everything to improve retention and graduation rates but it remains at 31%. They raised admission standards, invested in retention efforts, eliminated 1/2 the faculty and 1/2 the staff in the last 8 years and have even improved the buildings and nothing has improved the graduation rate. It seems pretty clear that the only thing left to try is to change higher education governance.

Anonymous said...

Kantian doesn't know what she's talking about. Lowering the number of hours is now considered best practice. There's no need for the students to spend an inordinate amount of time getting a few extra credits. A leaner curriculum WILL help graduation rates. The reason they have not yet appeared to rise is that the numbers follow a six-year rate, so many of the changes now implemented (say within the last three years) won't have full impact for a while. We raised the admission standards minimally, but we did not lose half the faculty or staff. That is a candard.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, a "canard"