After reading a recent press release from S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, the effort to reform higher education in the state resembles a frat-pack road trip more than an inspirational voyage of discovery. Expect few revelations, but lots of "smelt it, dealt it" jokes.
"On the road to reform there are many stops along the way, and it's my commitment to keep you updated on where we are on that journey together," he says. Sweet, who's got the Cow Tails and NoDoz?
Seriously, state budget leaders threatened to turn the car around last year, demanding that colleges and universities bring rising tuition costs down to the national average or forfeit construction projects that would need state approval. The schools brought down those rates, and it was quiet in the car once again. In fact, a little too quiet.
Sure, there was a line in the sand to get colleges to lower tuition hikes to the national average. But the students and parents paying those bills aren't looking for average relief. They're looking for extraordinary relief. No, students weren't getting a 15 percent better education in 2010 than they got in 2009. But they weren't getting a 7 percent better education, either. The schools have claimed they're blameless, pointing to increasing cuts in state aid. Of course, the conversation in Columbia hasn't been about getting more money to the schools, but about how to "fairly" fund schools. That, my friends, is a way of saying every school will continue to lose money, but they'll lose it on an equitable basis.
To be fair, Harrell is doing something. He's unveiled the South Carolina Higher Education Transparency Act.
"It's time to get to work! And we're doing just that," he exclaimed in an e-mail to supporters. The new legislation would require colleges and universities to post all of their spending online, "down to the dollar."
"With a tight budget year ahead of us, it's critical to ensure your tax dollars are spent wisely," Harrell argued. The bill "gives an added level of accountability to the taxpayers, and now you'll be able to see how every dollar is being spent at our public institutions."
If this is the road to reform, we're just leaving the driveway. We've just stopped to check the mailbox to see if there are any good magazines for the long, boring trip.
I had a similar gripe with the re-election strategy for Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom. It's supposed to be an office that weeds out waste and abuse in state spending. Instead, the comptroller's website has become a trash bin for file after file of state credit card statements. In fact, several state colleges already have their statements listed on the site, but I guess the Higher Education Already Transparent Act is about as helpful as a sign telling you the next rest stop is 45 miles away (in other words, go ahead and shit in the woods).
At the site, I started to look at the College of Charleston's spending. I could call the school's event planner and ask her what she bought at Hokus Pokus for $75. I could phone the athletic department and make sure they shopped around for competitive rates before settling on that $4,500 stay in Harrisonburg. Maybe I should congratulate those professors and staff who shopped local. And then I stopped, thought about the hour I'd wasted, and realized that this is not my job. This is Richard Eckstrom's job. This is Bobby Harrell's job.
But this is the racket that conservatives have been running for years. Let's put all the spending online and say we held them accountable. But transparency and accountability are two different things. I'm frankly not worried that CofC employees are abusing their credit cards. Most are spending money appropriately; they're just doing it on the backs of students who can't afford it.
What Harrell is offering with his Transparency Act reminds me of my father's stories about road trips. My grandparents would stop to read every historic marker. The eventually got where they were going, but they collected a lot of useless information along they way they really didn't need.