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The “Seamless System” (fall 2006)
of Public Education
THE STRUGGLE over Florida higher education governance, described in National CrossTalk articles in 2001 and in 2006, has continued unabated.
The basic issue is control. The Board of Governors of the State University System believes it is empowered to make major policy decisions for the 11 campuses and their 300,000 students. But the Florida Legislature insists it has the authority to make those decisions, especially the setting of tuition rates.
The issue was joined in the summer of 2007, when the Board of Governors, which had been acting cautiously since its establishment through a state constitutional amendment in 2002, seized the initiative and approved a five percent undergraduate tuition increase to take effect in the spring 2008 semester. However, the legislature then passed its own five percent increase, nullifying the board action.
Later, legislators and Governor Charlie Crist agreed to allow the state’s four largest campuses—the University of Florida, Florida State, the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida—to impose differential tuition increases of 30 to 40 percent over five years.
Board members argued that tuition increases were needed because the state’s average tuition and mandatory fees ($3,361 at the time) were the lowest in the nation, while its student-faculty ratio of 31:1 was far higher than the national average of 25:1. They also pointed out that state spending for the university system, already near the bottom nationally, had been cut by $157 million in 2007-08, with even deeper cuts expected in 2008-09.
“Quality is at risk,” board chair Carolyn Roberts told the St. Petersburg Times. “Access is important to our state, but quality has to be the number-one priority.”
But the Board of Governors’ action displeased the legislature, which over the years has favored keeping tuitions low. State Senate President Ken Pruitt, a Republican, introduced a resolution to abolish the Board of Governors, as part of yet another overhaul of postsecondary education governance—the third in six years.
The Pruitt resolution sought to abolish the present Board of Governors, replacing it with a board “subservient to the legislature,” a spokesman for the Board of Governors said. There also would be changes in the composition of the State Board of Education and the boards of trustees of the 11 state university campuses.
Finally, the resolution would create a Commissioner of Education over all public education, from kindergarten to graduate school. This would be a return to the “seamless system” put in place by former Governor Jeb Bush that was widely considered to be ineffective.
(The reorganization called for by the Pruitt resolution would make little difference to Florida’s 28-campus, 850,000-student community college system, said Will Holcomb, the system’s chancellor. “The present system has worked pretty well for us and we support it,” Holcomb said, but the new arrangement “would not make much of a change for us.”)
On March 27, the Senate approved the resolution, but Republican House leaders failed to garner the three-fifths vote needed to put the measure on the November ballot. “We tried; we tried hard, but the support’s just not there,” said Ellyn Bogdanoff, Republican House majority whip, in the St. Petersburg Times.
Richard Novak, vice president for public programs at the Association of Governing Boards, opposed the measure. “Florida needs a governing board to establish policy leadership. The state is growing fast, enrollment is increasing rapidly, there has been a proliferation of law schools and medical schools. There doesn’t seem to be good overall planning.”
In the meantime, former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham and others have filed a lawsuit, arguing that the 2002 state constitutional amendment (also pushed by Graham, among others), creating the Board of Governors, had transferred authority to set tuition rates from the legislature to the new board. The Board of Governors joined the lawsuit, further antagonizing Senator Pruitt and other lawmakers.
“This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to get unbridled tuition increases,” Pruitt said. “God help our students if they win.”
Those who follow the twists and turns believe the Graham forces will try to defeat the referendum but, failing that, will seek a new constitutional amendment that once again would establish the authority of the Board of Governors.
All of this has taken place against a background of financial distress. Florida, with no personal income tax, relies heavily on sales and real estate taxes, both of which have slumped due to declines in both the housing market and tourism. The result was an estimated $1.8 billion state budget deficit in 2008-09, leading to sharp cuts in higher education spending.
State university campuses have responded by freezing enrollments and hiring, and by postponing construction of new academic facilities.
“The governance and funding of higher education are a mess,” Robert H. Atwell, a Sarasota resident and former president of the American Council on Education, wrote in an op-ed in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “The primary victims will be those thousands of qualified students who will be turned away from the senior institutions or the community colleges.”