Look for costs -- and tempers -- to rise in 2003

The Education Beat

Predictions: The laws of economics and the laws of the Bush administration will loom over schools this year.

January 01, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

A FEW predictions for 2003:

The cost of college will soar, and Marylanders will feel it in their pocketbooks.

In the recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s, tuition at public institutions increased sharply. It's happening again.

"The continuing pattern in setting tuition over the past 20 years is that during recessions, the financial problems of states and colleges are given more weight than those of students and families," says Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Tuition increases will be acutely felt in Maryland because the university system limited increases to 4 percent during the 1990s, so there's pent-up pressure to dig deeper into students' pockets at a time of growing state budget deficits.

But - and it's a big "but" - Maryland's public colleges and universities, already thriving, will continue to thrive. Few students in this economy drop out of college for financial reasons.

Indeed, community colleges - with their low cost and occupational orientation - attract more students, not fewer, in bad times. (There's talk of capping enrollment at the Community College of Baltimore County.)

Moreover, even with a double-digit tuition increase, an education at a Maryland public university still will be a good deal. "People who don't qualify for financial aid at a private college will turn increasingly to in-state publics," predicts college financial planner Rick Darvis. "They're eating the lunch of the private colleges."

And, says Darvis, the competition is forcing the private schools to cut deals with students in all kinds of imaginative ways. They're turning increasingly to "merit" aid that doesn't necessarily go to academic achievers. "Bill Gates' kid has a lot of merit, even if he's a C student," says Darvis.

When federal school aid starts going to churches, all heck will - and should - break loose.

A little-noticed provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush's domestic program, requires school districts with poorly performing schools to provide after-school tutoring and other supplemental services in "21st Century Community Learning Centers."

These centers, which can be churches or other religious organizations, don't apply directly for the aid. They get themselves on a list of eligible organizations approved by state education departments.

Maryland thus far has approved only the thoroughly nonsectarian Sylvan and Huntington tutoring programs. But Dan Katz, former legislative director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says "churches and parochial schools are popping up, particularly in the South."

It hasn't happened yet, but wait until it's disclosed that a church gets federal money to tutor students from an all-black public school in the rural South - a school segregated by the loss of neighborhood white kids to a Christian academy.

State and federal officials will find it increasingly difficult to fend off what might be called civil disobedience.

In Monday's Sun, reporter David L. Greene described Nebraska's combative stance against the No Child Left Behind Act. Here's Nebraska education Commissioner Doug Christensen on the matter: "The Constitution of this country says education is a state matter, that it's our job, and I cannot in good conscience stand up in front of anyone in this state and say we need to do something because the federal government says we do."

Christensen has a point. The Bush Education Department wants it both ways: While insisting that they are mindful of state prerogatives, federal officials are dictating the most minute details of the act's enactment.

Nebraska isn't the first. Vermont came within an eyelash of telling the feds to keep their money. The state's Democratic Gov. Howard Dean calls the measure the "every school board left behind act."

Others are sure to follow as the states become keenly aware of the unfunded mandates buried in No Child Left Behind. Nor are Republicans anxious to campaign next year in defense of a federal department that, not so long ago, they wanted to eliminate. They said it was too intrusive in state affairs.

At the state level, officials are seeing a growing revolt against testing. The push for universal testing is colliding with a cherished value, parental rights, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. And many students are simply taking a hike at test time - in many cases, with their parents' blessing.

The prospect of widespread test boycotts strikes fear among officials, who know there's not much they can do about it. If just a small percentage of students stays away, results can be skewed. And the boycotts tend to involve the brighter students.

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