If anything good came out of the Penn State scandal, it is the willingness of the politicians in Pennsylvania to review their commitment to spend tax dollars on higher education. No politician has ever questioned pouring more and more money in state-owned and state-sponsored colleges and universities, even if there has never been an effective system for feedback and accountability. It has never been clear what exactly the tax money spent on universities is buying, and if there really is any value that comes out of it, as was admitted recently by Charles Zogby, a budgetary adviser to the Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett.
Such lack of accountability and clear assessment of benefits should have long ago started a debate in all the states and in the Federal government itself; but higher education, being a sacred cow of our modern culture (even when it’s much of education to start with), has never come under any scrutiny that would force politicians – and the public itself – to start looking at it as what it is: just another way private persons and organizations are milking the generous cow of the welfare state at the expense of the tax-payers, offering services of declining quality at an increasing cost. It took a scandal of horrifying immorality and the suffering of who knows how many children in the hands of unscrupulous perverts to finally make at least one state administration begin to cut on spending that has proven to be unnecessary. Pennsylvania’s governor Tom Corbett is making his first timid, small steps to reform the system of state aid to higher education.
The steps he is taking may seem big for the proponents of unlimited state funding of higher education; but there is a moral problem with Corbett’s plan. No, I am not saying that cutting state expenses is immoral – quite the opposite. What I am saying is that Governor Corbett failed to make the moral connection between the generous state support for Penn State and the immorality discovered in the school.
And the connection is there; just as there is connection between tax money and immorality in any government-owned or government-sponsored institution, whether it is TSA or the FDA, or the public school system. Tax money is what creates the environment for immorality to thrive and prosper, and tax money is what gives the perpetrators the feeling of security and impunity.
When a school or an institution is supported by private money from private individuals, who give voluntarily, this creates a very effective system of oversight and control over the moral dealings of the institution and within the institution. A private donor is a terrible thing to lose, and private donors are usually very sensitive when it comes to the reputation of the projects and the organizations they support. In private sponsorship and donations, the decision to support is in the hands of the person who owns the money, an individual, and any immorality in the external or the internal dealings of the sponsored organization may make the money flow cease. Such a system of accountability and oversight is very effective; whoever receives the donations must be very careful.
When tax money is poured into a school or an institution, that tax money was first taken from those who owned the money in the first place, by coercion. No politician or bureaucrat ever worked for the money they distribute. Right there, at the very first step if the process, is a problem with immorality, a basic injustice. Then, of course, bureaucrats are assigned to direct the re-distribution of that money; and bureaucrats by default do not own the money. There is a fundamental difference between a bureaucrat and a private donor: the bureaucrat doesn’t really care how the money is spent because it is neither his money nor is it spent on his own projects. Right there is the second basic immorality of the system of tax money for education.
Any institution that runs on money will do what it knows works in order to get more money. If more lobbying creates larger flow of money from the state, that institution will find it profitable to spend money to increase its political pressure upon lawmakers and increase the money flow from the state budget. This is another integral immorality of the system: Tax money eventually gets spent on creating political pressure for getting more tax money. At the very bottom, all government-sponsored organizations end up spending a large portion of the tax money given to them for more tax money. The very system requires it if the sponsored institution is to remain on the list of those who benefit from the government.
Then the only danger to the privileged status of getting tax money is some big scandal that would make the public aware that there is corruption. But who would know if there are any skeletons in the closet of a government-sponsored university? Only those that work for it, that is, the same people who profit from the ever increasing tax-flow. Outsiders are seldom familiar with all the workings of an institution. It is the insiders, the people who have vested interests, who know something. And those same vested interests would preclude them from reporting if there is a problem within the institution. It takes a person of great courage – and with accessibility to alternative employment – who would risk opening the closet for the world to see the skeletons in it. Such people are rare, when it comes to government-owned or government-sponsored organizations.
Therefore, Governor Corbett’s half-measures are not enough. As long as the states and the Federal government keep spending tax money on higher education, the schools will keep requiring more, the quality will keep getting lower, and – which is even worse – immorality will triumph among both staff and students. Only getting the government out of the education business will create the environment to solve the moral problems of our colleges. Anything less than that is utopian, and won’t work.