Chartering a new course
For years, the General Assembly has refused to do a significant part of their job:they've done nothing to ensure the quality of higher education in the Commonwealth. Now, three schools, including the University, want to officially step in and take on much of the responsibility that the legislature has ignored. Since state legislators have been unable and unwilling to appropriate the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to adequately fund Virginia colleges, the least they can do is back this proposal as the best way to save public institutions of higher education from financial disaster.
The University, along with Virginia Tech and the College of William & Mary, has proposed a charter plan under which these schools would take on much of the educational administrative duties of the Commonwealth. These schools would be officially classified as "political subdivisions" of the state, and have more freedom to set tuition and manage capital projects. In return, the expected financial contribution of the Commonwealth to these schools would be permitted to drop significantly.
This proposal comes after 15 years of plummeting state support of higher education. According to the University, in the 1988-1989 fiscal year, state funding comprised 28.1 percent of the University's spending. This year, that level has fallen to 8.1 percent. When compared to other peer institutions, the situation looks even bleaker. According to the Center for the Study of Education Policy, state appropriation for the University per in-state student is less than half of the state funding that goes to Berkeley and UNC-Chapel Hill. All in all, the University gets over $12,500 less per student than public schools of comparable stature.
This proposal is likely to be hotly debated in Richmond, and even committed advocates of higher education are reluctant to support it. According to Ellen Qualls, Warner's press secretary, "the Governor is open to discussion of more autonomy for Virginia's institutions, and in fact, did not include the tuition cap in this year's budget. His first priority, however, is to get a budget passed that begins to address Virginia's chronic underfunding of higher education â?¦ in the short term, the best thing advocates of higher education can do is ask their legislators to support the Governor's budget."
While it's good that Warner is looking to increase funding to Virginia's schools and universities, the situation is at a breaking point. Even if the legislature completely approves Warner's tax reform package (which is far from likely), the governor's plan only funds schools an additional $144 million -- still short of what it will cost to cover Virginia schools' current operating costs. A shift in funding priorities isn't enough -- emergency action is needed to save Virginia's schools.
For years, Richmond has been cutting state schools off at the knees, leaving college administrators scrambling to cut costs and raise revenue. As a result, state support is at an all-time low. For the first time ever at a public school in Virginia, spending from private sources has overtaken spending from the General Assembly. Without increased flexibility from the state, the already depleted coffers of Virginia's schools will fall dangerously low.
The proposed charter program is a reasonable compromise that would provide for adequate funding of Virginia schools, while still maintaining state supervision of funding and curricular decisions. After cutting higher education by $617 million in the past two years, legislators have this chance to show that they're not completely indifferent to the needs of the Commonwealth's public colleges. Higher education in Virginia should be thriving with the help of, not in spite of, politicians in Richmond.