As many parents know, April can be the cruelest month, breeding college rejection letters from across the land. My daughter Sadie, who’s completed the IB program at Flagler Palm Coast High School, had high hopes. But she was wait-listed at her four top choices, all four of them out of state. She finally enrolled, to her great disappointment and ours, at the University of Florida. Then last week Grinnell College in Iowa called. Sadie was off the wait list. She was in. Not only that: she was granted a full ride and then some. Just as important: She got her visa out of Florida.
We shouldn’t have been so relieved that she could turn down the state’s best public university. But we were. I doubt we’re the only ones in this spot, which says plenty about the state of public education in Florida: that state is closer to dismal than acceptable, and it’s an indication of where Florida is heading. It’s not joining the ranks of competitive, high-tech states with an innovative or sought-after workforce. It’s becoming a wasteland of tourist ghettoes, sunbathing spreads and Medicare colonies, its golf courses tended more lovingly than its classrooms.
Florida does not take its K through 12 school system seriously. The Legislature takes pleasure in short-changing it financially. It treats its teachers as if they were robotic data-entry secretaries rather than professional educators. It harasses students with standardized testing that would fail any credibility test. It is privatizing the system by way of charter schools, the cheaper, less accountable way of pretending that our children are getting educated. At least they’re wearing uniforms.
The Legislature’s assault on public universities has been no less severe, with a $300 million cut this year alone. Bright Futures, the full-ride scholarship once given to the state’s best students, is now a tease, covering just half an entering freshman’s tuition. Forget about room and board. It’s a little disturbing that Sadie’s college costs at UF, all grants and scholarships aside, would have still been steeper at that $19,000-a-year school than at Grinnell, where it costs $50,000 a year.
Endowments, which underwrite the price of a great faculty and provide students more access through generous financial aid, tell a story. Compare Florida to North Carolina and Virginia, two states that do make higher education a priority. The University of Virginia’s endowment is approaching $5 billion. North Carolina’s is at $2.3 billion. The University of Florida? $1.3 billion. Even Grinnell, a school with one-thirtieth UF’s student body, has an endowment $200 million larger than UF’s.
Something is amiss in the notion of supporting our brightest futures. It’s not just the money or the politicians. It’s attitudes. Let’s be honest. Floridians don’t value education. At least not as a defining priority. Almost universally, the reaction Sadie got when she’d say she was going to UF was glee that she was becoming a Gator. Grown men and women, supposed business leaders and politicians, would congratulate her and immediately go into football or basketball fan mode. That’s what UF means to people.
It’s what UF means to its own governance. When the Legislature cut UF’s funding this year, the university thought nothing of eliminating its computer science department to save $1.4 million, though it increased its athletic budget, now approaching $100 million, by $2 million. A big outcry—led by students and computer scientists, not by Floridians at large—forced the university to reverse its decision.
The question must be asked: why isn’t the school’s athletic department—American university’s equivalent of Pentagon budgets, waste and bogus needs included—the first place to take a hit? The rationale that football brings in gobs of revenue doesn’t wash: college athletics’ finances are a self-fulfilling obscenity, siphoning priorities and money away from a university’s primary mission, which is not moving a football 100 yards downfield, but forming the best minds possible. That’s not happening at UF or in Florida higher education at a level that would no longer compel us parents to look for ways out of this state for our children.
And this is how Florida intends to make its way into the 21st century.
Tallahassee isn’t entirely at fault. Lawmakers reflect the roots and rubbish of their constituents, who love low taxes and college football. It may be fine for the rest of us geezers. Our mortgages are spoken for. But to condemn our children to the same fate is a crime. And we’re guilty of it every time we vote our greed instead of our ideals.