by JOHN WHIKEHART
Permit me to offer observations on the future of education if we vote to continue our current political leadership. Shakespeare guides the way:
“What is past is prologue.”
In K-12 education, the Trump administration will continue to erode support for public education and teachers. Simplistically phrased support for “choice” is simply a calculated diversion of taxpayer funding from our obligation of free public education for all children. The result is we will pay twice: public school expenses do not decline with the shift of tax dollars to private schools. In fact, they will suffer more underfunding. Trump’s priority for reopening the economy will have supremacy over the safety of our teachers, staff, and children. There will be stronger and more unchecked demands in 2021 to reopen our schools, regardless of science and health warnings. Local schools that resist will be threatened with punishment.
In Indiana, Governor Eric Holcomb declined in 2020 to support more state funding for teacher pay, arguing that the additional funding provided to pay off teacher pension debt was sufficient. In other words, he agreed to pay the obligation the state owed its former teachers in hope of distracting from state obligation to current underpaid teachers: bait and switch. He wants to examine how schools currently use the money for teacher salaries before adding more to the mix. For a Republican party of smaller government, that Big Brother attitude of “I know better than your elected school board” will be the perspective. Our governor says he wants Indiana to be among the top three states regionally for teacher pay but declines to fund that goal: Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.
In higher education, state support for our universities has declined precipitously. Our universities are no longer “state-supported.” At best they’re “state-assisted,” with funding falling to approximately 20% of need. While support declines and insistence that tuition not be increased for Indiana students grows, our political leaders continue to bemoan that our universities are forced to accept more out-of-state students. There is no relief in sight in this scenario for Indiana student debt; in fact, it makes it more likely. The idea that we might fund tuition-free education at our community college does not have bi-partisan support, and yet we know that the access point for many first-generation students and students of color is through our nation’s community colleges. We will want “workforce development” for our businesses but assign the cost for it to our taxpayers and students.
Most harmful of all to our future is the harm done to higher education by Trump immigration policies and never-ceasing attacks on our health and science communities. As we face a greater need for doctors, researchers, and scientists to guard against the next health and current climate crises, we get politically motivated disparagement of those professions. International students, many of whom in the past came here and remained to contribute in fields such as technology, science, and health, are now threatened with uncertainty if they can get here at all. This not only impacts our progress in the global economy but the economic survival of our universities: international students pay high sticker prices to receive our education. As our family traveled in China recently,
the students we met there told us that their ability to gain our student visas had fallen by as much as 50%. The result was that fewer were even attempting to apply. Somehow that makes us safer?
What I describe is not a dystopian vision of the future, it is our current reality. It is up to us to change it.
John Whikehart retired from Ivy Tech Community College–Bloomington as Chancellor Emeritus in 2014. In his 45-year career in Indiana government and education he also served as deputy mayor for the City of Bloomington, personnel director for the City of Kokomo, chief of staff in the Indiana Senate, teacher in Indiana public schools, and adjunct faculty at Indiana University–Kokomo.