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Chartered-university initiative is likely to cause more harm than good
Date published: 1/4/2005
CHARLOTTESVILLE—The “charter” initiative is a bid by the state’s flagship schools to gain autonomy from the state. If the charter enabling legislation is passed during the legislative session that begins later this month, a charter contract will be negotiated by each charter-seeking university and the governor.
Once these contracts are signed, the basic legal status of each chartered university would change. As a result, tuition-setting authority would shift from the Virginia General Assembly to each institution’s governing board; faculty and staff would lose their status as “state employees”; and the institutions would in one fell swoop liberate themselves from state oversight in areas such as procurement, capital construction, and personnel.
Proponents claim that an unprecedented restructuring of the relationship between the state and its flagship universities is justified by chronic state underfunding. Virginia doesn’t care about its state schools, goes the argument, so the flagships must be allowed to semiprivatize.
In short, control over revenue (tuition) and expenses (employee compensation) must be shifted away from Richmond so that each institution can operate like a private corporation, with minimal accountability to the state.
There are four problems with the charter initiative. First, the extreme anti-state rhetoric that has accompanied the charter campaign distorts the historical record and undermines public commitment to higher education.
Second, the legislation as currently written poses a risk to lower- and middle-income families, to employees at the institutions seeking chartered status, to the localities in which these institutions are situated, and to the whole public higher education system.
Third, the main argument in favor of the charter—that it provides state universities with a stable funding model—is based on faulty interpretation of the law.
Finally, much if not all of what the flagship schools seek can be achieved by less radical—hence less risky—means.
According to one university leader, Virginia’s flagships deserve autonomy because they are not “state-supported but state-molested.” This is rich coming from a state employee who earns more than half a million dollars a year and lives in a state-owned and -operated estate.
But is the point valid? Let’s look at the record. In constant dollars, general appropriations for higher education increased 20 percent from 1992 to 2003, and appropriations per student were greater in 2001 than in any year since 1990.