The steady defunding of public education in Georgia over the last dozen years or so is nothing short of shameful. Not only is this practice devastating to our economic future, it damages our interior quality of life -- our ability to understand the world we live in through exposure to what another era called the best that has been known and thought, subjects like history, literature and science. This climate also diminishes respect for educators in the public eye, lessening the likelihood that our best and brightest graduates will seek a career in teaching.
The release of statistics on the 2012 enrollment in the University System of Georgia makes it clear that the attacks are also affecting college and university study. It is alarming that the lack of investment in higher education has gone almost unnoticed by the very media who ought to serve as the watchdogs of public policy.
As recently as 2007, state funding paid for roughly 75 percent of public college costs in Georgia. Just five years later, the students share of the burden has risen to over 50 percent, and 2012 enrollment was in decline at over half the public institutions in the state.
While we tend to think of college students as traditional-aged, dormitory-dwelling kids joining Greek organizations and attending football games, the truth is the majority of todays college students are adults, an important population in a state where the population does not enjoy a high level of educational attainment. In order to increase the number of successful traditional-aged students, the number of college-educated adults (i.e. parents) must increase. Yet we are pricing college out of reach for many middle class families.
Americas economic boom in the 20th century was fueled in large measure by the educational expansion wrought by the G.I. Bill. Indeed, I was one of those who attended college thanks to the G. I. Bill, and it was a land grant college that I attended, one created by the 1862 Morrill Act to make education affordable for the average American. These policies made America great.
Nowadays a different philosophy prevails. Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, former secretary of Defense Robert Gates (now the Chancellor of the College of William & Mary) points out that many of Americas leading public institutions receive less than 15 percent of their budget from state sources. In Georgia, faced with rising costs and diminishing state support, public colleges have had to repeatedly raise tuition. The result is that low-cost public education is rapidly vanishing.
What on Earth has happened here? The change, as Gates points out, is that education is no longer viewed as a public good. Our state representatives have lost sight of the value of education. They see a state university as giving added value to the students but fail to see that the real added value accrues to the state -- an entity made up of individuals whose collective value as citizens is what will shape our future.
Sadly, our leaders have come to view education as a gift to the individual rather than as an investment in the future. Our state is home to several of Americas finest private institutions -- Mercer, Emory, Morehouse, Spelman and Wesleyan -- but it is unreasonable to look to them to fill our states educational void. We cannot look to private institutions to supply the remedial services so necessary in the state that constantly underfunds and mismanages its elementary and secondary system.
Who then is to educate those who, though no fault of their own are our poor and the poorly prepared? With two boys currently in college, my wife and I know the burdens of educating children. If families like ours struggle, where is the hope for those further down the economic ladder? Indeed, is it realistic to continue to call education the key to the American dream?
Metaphorically speaking, Georgias defunding of public education is reminiscent of someone who, facing a cold winter, decides to burn the furniture instead of chopping wood: It may be a solution for the short run, but it destroys all hope for the future.
This has not been the American way. Until now our hopes and dreams for the future have provided the currency of world leadership. Can we simultaneously under-educate our citizens and yet hope to stand in the forefront of nations? How long can we kid ourselves?
Weve let ourselves be diverted by such weighty topics as Miley Cyrus and films like Kick-Ass 2 when, come January, we need to be marching down Washington Street to the Capitol.
Larry Fennelly is the arts columnist for The Telegraph. He can be contacted at LarryFennelly@AvantGuild.com