For the good of the public

When does public education stop being public?

Forty or 50 years ago, it was possible to go to college in most of the U.S. for free or without loans. You could work a summer job and pay for a year of college.

By Kevin Rackham
When does public education stop being public?

Forty or 50 years ago, it was possible to go to college in most of the U.S. for free or without loans. You could work a summer job and pay for a year of college.

Nothing could be further from the truth today.

Public education has become increasingly more expensive, especially in the past decade, and the burden is being shifted onto students. In Oregon, tuition funds more of operations costs than public funding does.

Can we still truly call this public education?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development defines public education as “education that is overseen or controlled by a public board or government agency,” but it goes beyond that. Public education at a K–12 level means that students don’t pay tuition because the public funds their schools. Why does that definition no longer apply after a student gets a diploma?

I’ve criticized the University of Oregon for seeking more independence, but at the same time I can understand where they’re coming from. It’s wrong to be under the control of the OUS without actually being supported by it.
The state has been disinvesting in education, and universities should either have their own governing board or receive better state funding. When students are the main source of funding, they and the university should have more say.

Treating education as a public good has always benefitted this country. Expanding higher education after World War II and introducing the GI Bill allowed us to keep growing our economy; it allowed us to win the space race and invent the technologies of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

Becoming more public and less privatized would relieve the student debt crisis and help balance the economy.
Attacking free education has backfired. Californians didn’t pay tuition until the ’80s. The Berkeley riots convinced the state that students should pay for their education—that they should spend more time working and less time protesting.

Now the California university system is one of the most expensive in the country, to the point that it would be cheaper for a Californian to attend Harvard than a state university. California’s failing economy and inflated education system are definitely linked, and the same can be said of Oregon.

The voters are at fault, too. Oregonians have voted in things like 1990’s Measure 5, which crippled K–12 education funding from property taxes. Lowering the property tax helped Oregon’s economy bounce back, but education has suffered since. K–12 and higher education have been forced to compete for the state budget.

Then we’ve had people like Art Robinson (currently running against Peter DeFazio in Congressional District 4) who would like to abolish public education in general. Measures to increase K–12 and university funding have to fight to get passed. Often they don’t. Oregon’s voters have been hindering public education for years, despite it being a system they likely benefited from when they were younger.

That’s why we need state funds to solve the problem.

The legislature is going to look at passing a big bond that would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the Oregon Opportunity Grant. Better financial aid would certainly help but, speaking as someone who receives the OOG, it doesn’t go far enough. I still had to take out a private loan this year to afford tuition.

Our current definition of “need-based aid” also doesn’t work, because middle-class households often don’t qualify for aid, even though a lot of them desperately need it. Giving students better funding would be one way to make education more of a public good.

Politicians love to lament how low America’s test scores rank against other countries, and Oregon politicians are no exception. But other countries and other states perform better because they’ve invested in education better. Oregon education and American education as a whole has to become a priority. For the good of the public.