Since the whole “war on x” thing is overdone, I will not say that there is a war on public education. Rather, I will say that certain politicians have attacked one of the cornerstones of America’s democratic system and its economic strength, namely public education.
Scott Walker has aimed at eroding tenure at public universities in Wisconsin and Rick Scott has imposed an irrational and harmful performance based funding system in Florida. Similar attacks on public education are occurring in many states. Most states have also cut financial support for public education. While occurring under the guise of cost reduction and accountability, these attacks seem calculated at impeding independent research that might expose troublesome truths and also to open up new avenues of private profit at the expense of the public good.
In 2014 I wrote an essay critical of Florida’s harmful and ineffective (in terms of achieving educational goals) performance based funding system. Writing in 2015, my views of this system remain mostly the same; although the seemingly arbitrary changes in the rules have made me like it even less.
My school, Florida A&M University, took a beating under the existing system. This system, as I noted in the earlier essay, fails to consider the challenges faced by specific schools and the assessment system seems calculated to favor certain schools. Not surprisingly, the 2015 faculty planning sessions focused heavily on performance based funding. It was, in fact, the main subject of the keynote speaker.
This speaker took a rational and pragmatic approach to the problem. He noted that complaining about it and refusing to accept its reality would be a rather bad idea. Roughly put, failure to respond in accord with the punitive standards imposed by the state would simply doom FAMU to ever lower budgets. By meeting the standards, FAMU could escape the punitive level and thus push another school down into the pit of financial pain (the performance based funding system is such that there must always be three losers).
Being pragmatic and realistic myself, I agreed with the speaker. As a state employee, I am obligated to operate within the laws imposed upon me by the state. If I find them too onerous, I can elect to leave my job and head for greener pastures. To use the obvious analogy, if I choose to play a game under a certain set of rules, I am stuck playing within those rules. Muttering complaints about them or refusing to accept their reality will do me no good (other than the dubious benefits of bitching and self-delusion). As such, as a professor I am working conscientiously to meet the imposed standards so as to protect my school and students from the punishment of the state.
To use another analogy, it is like being forced to play a rough game by a movie villain—if we do not play by his rules, he will hurt people we care about. As with most movie villain games, it is set up so that winning means making someone else lose (regardless of how well everyone does, the three lowest schools always lose out on funding). Unlike with the movie villain, I am free to leave the game—I just have to abandon my colleagues, students, job, rank and tenure. The state, I must confess, makes finding a new game more and more appealing every year.
It is important to note that my conscientious adherence to the funding game rules is in my capacity as a state employee. However, I am not just a state employee—I am also a citizen of the state. While the state has the right to command me as an employee, the authority of the state rests on my consent as a citizen. And, as a citizen, I have every right to be opposed to performance based funding and every right to take action against it. I can write essays critical of it, thanks to freedom of speech. I can also campaign against politicians who support it and cast my vote accordingly. I can fund those who would oppose this attack on education.
The laws of the state are, obviously enough, not laws of nature or laws handed down on stone tablets by God. They are but the opinions of people made into rules by the rituals of voting. Thoreau eloquently made this point in his work on civil disobedience:
…why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible…
As Thoreau indicates, performance based funding, and any rule of the state, can be challenged—it was created by people and people can change it. As a citizen, I believe that performance based funding is harmful to the public good and, as such, I not only have a right as a citizen to oppose it I also have a moral obligation to do so. Meanwhile, as a state employee, I will be conscientiously working to ensure that FAMU meets the standards imposed by the state.
To close with an analogy, think of the public universities of Florida as ships that are under attack. Metaphorically, bombs, missiles and shells are raining down upon them, fired at the behest of an ideology opposed to this cornerstone of American democracy and economic advancement. Working within performance based funding is analogous to only repairing damage and extinguishing fire (and also to maneuver to force another ship to take the brunt of the attack). As any tactician knows, battles are not won by damage control or by letting an ally take the beating for you. Rather, they are won by taking the fight to the enemy. As such, I urge the citizens of Florida, especially students, faculty and staff, to exercise their rights as citizens to oppose the attacks on the public good of public education with their words, deeds and votes.