Dr. Michael Forster

Oil price drop threatens Louisiana higher education

If ever there were a time for even a poor state like Mississippi to raid Louisiana’s public colleges and universities for good faculty, now may be it.  Already beaten down by seemingly endless rounds of cuts, Louisiana schools may now be staring into the face of true catastrophe, as state government looks at a projected next-year budget deficit of $1.4 billion.  Higher ed administrators have been told to prepare for reductions as high as $384 million, which is almost $80 million higher than the state’s allocation on the entire community/technical college system.

The real culprit here is not cut-happy politicians (though in the past there appeared to be no shortage of those, beginning with Gov. Jindal), but the falling price of oil, the financial life blood of the Bayou State.  Every $1 drop in the price of a barrel of crude means a $10-$12 million loss of revenue for the state.  Which means that the deficit projection is likely to grow only larger, making any expenditure that can be cut that much more vulnerable to the budgetary axe.

If anything is likely to help shield Louisiana higher education from utter devastation, it’s that this is an election year in the state, as it is in Mississippi.  Neither closing schools outright, nor gutting their budgets to the point where they can’t maintain accreditation, let alone prosper, is likely to prove a popular reelection campaign proposition.

Dr. Michael Forster

Still in the education cellar

Just in time to turn up the heat on legislative debate on education funding even higher, Mississippi has scored one more “51st out of 51″ K-12 education system rankings.   According to the Education Week’s Quality Counts report, as reported in today’s Hattiesburg American, that’s an unqualified F in “academic achievement,” and a D+ in “chance for success,” folks.  Ouch.   No doubt there’s room to quibble about just how bad off we are, but the primary metrics are hard to argue with.  Mississippi students performed well below the national average in the 2013 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores for fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math.  And fewer than 4 percent of Mississippi students who took an AP exam scored a passing grade of 3 or higher, compared to a national average of 25.7 percent. 

Looking for a bright side to this educational blight, one might argue that both Gov. Bryant and state Supt. Wright at least deserve a B+ in making politically innocuous statements.  Bryant called the latest findings “troubling,” but evident support for “transformational public education reforms like the third-grade gate and new opportunities for public charter schools.”  Wright opined that “We know that many factors influence student achievement, and we hope the leadership in our state and communities will make decisions that will provide better opportunities for students to take advanced placement courses.”

All we can do is hope, I suppose.

Dr. Michael Forster

Expect climate change and health to take center stage in 2015

After years of denial, climate change and its deleterious impacts are now squarely on the political agenda of a growing number of Americans.  Many of those impacts are directly or indirectly health related, from increasingly destructive weather events and shifting disease vectors, to disruption of agricultural production and water scarcity.  Coming home are brutally simple truths – climate change is real; people (not to mention myriad other species) will suffer and die as a result; it’s still possible to mitigate at least some climate change impacts, but the clock is working against us.

Look for battles to shape up in both traditional and non-traditional venues.  If legislatures, regulatory bodies, and courts fail to act to curtail climate change contributors, expect rising rates of street demonstration and civil disobedience aimed at disrupting “business as usual.”

Dr. Michael Forster

Last word on the last day of the year: Education!

I don’t always agree with Sid Salter’s views, but he’s right on in a December 27 piece in the Clarion-Ledger when underscoring the fundamental link between poor education, unemployment, and poverty in Mississippi.  Perhaps it’s because the correlation is inescapable – a sad socio-economic reality that leaves little room for interpretation.

Poverty is high – and with poverty, a whole litany of social negatives, perhaps most notably poor heath – because Mississippi’s educational system is weak, underfunded, and on the whole incapable of keeping pace with a rapidly changing economic environment.  Part of the weakness is comparatively low educational attainment – the second lowest in the nation (trailing only West Virginia), with only about 20% of the population aged 25 and older having completed at least a bachelor’s degree.  Consequently, Mississippi has the lowest median income (under $38,000) and the highest poverty rate (24%) in the nation.

I surely can’t say it better than Salter: “As former Gov. William Winter and others in both parties have observed in the past, the road out of abject, withering and persistent poverty in Mississippi surely runs by the doors of the schoolhouse, the community college, the vocational-technical training facilities and the university. An educated workforce attracts and commands more and better jobs.”

2015 is a big election year in Mississippi.  Public officials, and would-be public officials, take note – The numbers don’t lie; it’s as clear as blaze orange: Mississippi is poor because it is undereducated.  The policy implication seems equally clear: Fund education at a level that will allow us to make real headway.  And stop hiding behind the excuse that Mississippi is just too poor to do what needs to be done to escape poverty.  That’s fatalism, not leadership.

Dr. Michael Forster

Funding crisis permeates public education

Both the Hattiesburg American and the Clarion-Ledger front-page a story today on Mississippi’s “long history of lousy education and a bad habit of not paying for it” in the K-12 public education system.  But informed readers know that the funding crisis extends to higher education as well, where a retreat from even “adequate” public funding has been underway for a long while now.

Different states, and even individual institutions, will reach the tipping point of possibly irreversible decline on different dates.  But Mississippi supporters of public education will want to pay close attention to the experience of the University of New Orleans, just more-or-less 100 miles south or west of USM’s campuses in Hattiesburg and Long Beach.

At UNO, President Peter Fos, my predecessor in the College of Health dean’s office, has been pushed into the fiscal corner of proposing elimination of otherwise healthy and valuable academic programs for no reason other than that the combination of state funding (dramatically reduced under Gov. Jindal and a compliant Louisiana legislature) and tuition won’t sustain them.  Other programs are on the bubble for possible similar treatment, as workloads of faculty and staff rise, and employee morale plummets.

Let’s hope a similar fate does not await USM or any other Mississippi institution of higher learning.