This week, Teflon Tim announced a proposal that would offer two years of free tuition at the University of Minnesota, or other colleges in the MnSCU system, to students in the top 25% of their class and come from families making less than $150,000 a year. Students receiving the assistance must attend full-time and maintain a B-average, and students are eligible to attain two more years of free tuition if they major in math or a science. The rationale behind this is purported that it would keep Minnesota's best and brightest in-state while boosting our enrollment in math and science.
Politics aside, this is worthy start. This being a politically-charged election year, however, I think we must examine the proposal both on the merits and on its political nature.
On its face, Pawlenty's proposal fulfills, or seems as though it would fulfill, the objectives set forth in my previous post. We need an increasing number of young people who are trained and can work in math and science fields, and who are educated with an eye toward America's (and Minnesota's) global competitiveness. It seems both reasonable and fair; it targets mostly middle- and low-income students; it offers incentives to study math or science.
Detractors (including Brian Melendez, DFL state party chair) have claimed that the proposal gives unfair advantage to those students already doing well, while leaving others behind. Call me elitist, but I don't see a huge problem with that. If we are to do anything, it is encourage and reward those who perform. Unfortunately, however, we do not have an secondary education system set up to provide a level playing field. For example, Minnesota ranks near the bottom of states in African-American graduation rate (a dismal 44 percent), while posting one of the highest overal graduation rates in the country. Therefore, not all of the kids who could potentially achieve status within the top 25 percent of their class are afforded that opportunity based on our malnourished schools, which are primarily based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, but also exist throughout rural Minnesota. Ultimately, the bulk of students that will be able to take advantage of this proposal are those in property-tax-rich municipalities, located primarily throughout the inner- and outer-ring suburban school districts. Without investment in quality secondary education, this proposal unduly rewards those who already have the advantages of a high-performance education. But, I do agree, that this is a good starting point for further discussion on that subject.
The additional math and science incentive is another topic. Unfortunately, "math and science" are about as ill-defined subjects as one can find on a college campus. Is leisure studies a "science"? Is nursing? Is dental hygiene? The question is: Where do we draw the boundaries? Math and science are terms of art that can fit practically any individual definition. Also, who will decide what math and science are? The governor? Legislators? Educators? We don't know...
Another question here is why just math and science? I think the aim should instead point toward the goals of improving Minnesota's competitiveness on a global scale, and preparing (many) students for the economy of the present and future. This does not mean only providing incentives to math and science majors, but rewarding future educators who will instruct and develop the economic leaders of the next generation. Why not provide an additional two free years to education majors? What about areas of the local economy where there are shortages, such as in nursing?
There is also the matter of private colleges and universities that award a full 25 percent of all the bachelor's degrees in Minnesota. Students attending those institutions are left out in the cold as well.
No matter what the merits of this proposal, the real story here is in the politics behind it. I have to hand it to Teflon Tim; this was an incredibly shrewd move that has put his most likely opponent, Mike Hatch, on his heels fresh after his DFL endorsement.
The beauty of this move is that is completely deflates the legitimate point that Teflon Tim has moved the state backward in higher education. He has overseen the largest increases in state college tuition, hiked student fees, and has ignored faculty salaries. And now, with a Jedi wave of the hand, he can deflect all of that criticism with this proposal.
And what's better, he doesn't actually have to do anything with it. This is less than a campaign promise, it's merely words. Teflon Tim comes off looking like a moderate (even David Strom, Grand Poobah of the MN Taxpayer's League is in a huff over this thing) and if he does win re-election, he won't actually have to follow through on it. Why? Two likely scenarios:
- Democrats retain the State Senate and win a majority in the State House. They follow up on Pawlenty's proposal, and make amendments to it similar to what I described above. The proposal passes and goes to Teflon Tim's desk. He refuses to sign it, because the DFL has "distorted" his intent and it's no longer fit for the state. Period. End of discussion.
- Democrats retain the State Senate and Republican retain a majority in the State House. The proposal passes with amendments similar to my descriptions above. But, the proposal fails in the State House because Dr. No Phil Krinkie and his Zero-Tax Clan tie it up in committee, the necessary Republican votes do not materialize on the floor, or the proposal is gutted in a conference committee.
As a result, the criticism for not seeing the proposal through slides right off Teflon Tim and sticks somewhere else. Timmy gets a winning campaign message, and no blame when it blows up after the election. I'm awestruck.
The other question I'd like to ask here is: Why doesn't the DFL ever make proposals like this sooner? Instead, we fritter around with code words - health care, education - but we rarely present voters with something concrete. Is it fear? Are we inept? My suggestion and my hope is that Hatch comes out with something bold - most likely something to do with health care since that's the feather in his cap - and run with it. We need to beat Pawlenty back or else he'll run roughshod right over us with his folksy Minnesota smile and his in-the-closet extremism.