All the talk about “charter universities” has raised a ruckus around the campus of Miami University.
A group of faculty, staff, students, community members and representatives from other public universities, including the University of Cincinnati, gathered at a “teach-in” April 7 to discuss the ramifications of Miami’s potential to be a “charter university.”
Becoming a “charter university” entails less state funding of the public university in exchange for less regulation by the state. This is basically a form of privatization of public universities, according to Kathleen Knight- Abowitz, professor of education at Miami.
With less money from the state, the university has two options: finding funds somewhere else or operating the university with less money, said Professor Richard Quantz.
“Every year the state informs the university of the maximum amount they are allowed to raise tuition,” Quantz said. “If that regulation were to be taken away, then the university would be permitted to raise its tuition as much as it thought it could get away with in the marketplace.”
He went on to say there is also a rule regulating the number of students on the Oxford campus. Without this cap, there could potentially be bigger class sizes and more students.
Another way to make up for the lack of funding would be to pay the labor less, reduce benefits or eliminate jobs, Quantz said.
“We regulate for one of two reasons either to protect the public’s interest or to protect the vulnerable,” Quantz said.
Teaching Associate Brent Johnson said the idea of “charter schools,” meaning elementary schools, middle schools and high schools, is 25 to 30 years old. It was originally proposed, “to best experiment with teaching techniques and increase students’ scores,” Johnson said. The founder wanted to do away with bureaucracy that would hold back the
Today, 8 percent of students in the United States attend charter schools. However, according to Johnson, the motive has changed.
“It used to be a collaborative effort but now is a competitive effort between the public school and the charter,” Johnson said. “Based on data, reports and information that compares the two types of schools and students, there is little to no difference. Outcomes seem to favor the traditional school. We haven’t seen the results we have been promised.”
The state of Virginia has a charter-type system now, instituted six years ago, said Knight-Abowitz. Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is one of the few “charter universities” in the United States and experienced a 24 percent tuition increase this past year.
“A public university means shared problems and interests,” Knight-Abowitz said. “It should serve the public and be affordable.”
Professor Dennis Carlson and Associate Professor Denise Baszile agreed action needs to be taken against “charter universities.”
“We are in difficult times right now,” Baszile said. “I encourage students and faculty to think of what it means to be
activist and part of a university. ‘Charter universities’ puts a public institution’s obligation to students at stake.”
As of now, the “charter universities” is a part of the budget bill presented by Ohio Governor John Kasich. David Creamer, vice president of finance and business services, said he doesn’t expect the bill to pass before late June.
“This idea of ‘charter universities’ is still very poorly defined,” Creamer said. “The plan within the bill doesn’t describe how it will work.”
Depending on the details, Miami will evaluate and assess the plan to see what changes will be needed to accomplish it, Creamer said.
President David Hodge said he is keen on regulatory reform and becoming a charter university could help to make Miami more autonomous with less red tape.
“We would like to explore the possibilities,” Hodge said. “We will look at it very carefully. It will be debated. I encourage participation in a study to see where we are.”
According to Hodge, construction reform regulations by the state are outdated and cost the university tens of millions of dollars. By becoming a charter university, Miami could save money by not having to follow these expensive regulations.
“Whether or not we become a charter university, we will continue to press for the greater ability to do what we need to do,” Hodge said. “For example, we are currently working on renovating residence halls. Without state regulations, 15 to 30 percent could be saved in building costs.”
Hodge said Miami gets less money from the state each year anyway. Chartering could allow Miami to do better with what it gets.
“We are not trading less funding for more freedom,” Hodge said. “We already have less money, we want to use it effectively. Charter universities may be a way to make Miami more agile to fulfill our mission better.”
The option of becoming a charter university may be more attractive if the funding from Ohio eventually bottoms out, Creamer said.
“We feel the quality and management of the university is at a high level,” Creamer said. “There is nothing to indicate how much funding will be lost if we partake in chartering. The loss of funding is unattractive unless there is a lot of freedom. The funding helps us make education affordable and valuable for our students.”
The teach-in resulted in a plan for action against Miami becoming a charter university, which includes provisions for confronting the administration and urging them to look at Miami’s problems and the budget, ensuring that tuition is affordable and developing labor sustainability, among others.
The group’s mission statement is: “We want public universities to be more for the public.”