There’s no such thing as free college

I have seen a few comments in social media over the past few days celebrating Rhode Island’s decision to offer “free college.” There is of course a little more to it than that, but the recent action by the Rhode Island legislature, signed by the governor, bears examination.

Last Thursday the Rhode Island legislature approved the Promise Scholarship, which will cover the cost of tuition and fees at the Community College of Rhode Island for new students starting this fall. The tuition and fees will be covered regardless of their income. According to CNN, it is a four-year pilot program for which the legislature appropriated, as part of the state’s budget, $2.8 million for the first year.

Community College of Rhode Island has some 15,000 students, but most of them will not be eligible for the Promise Scholarship because they are part-time students or are not recent high school graduates. The CNN report indicates that the college “expects an uptick in enrollment of first-time students next year by at least 200 because of the program. It estimates that between 1,200 and 1,300 students will receive the scholarship this fall.”

Full-time tuition for Rhode Island residents is currently $2,074 per semester. The Promise Scholarship will also cover a per-semester fee of $208 per student.

This all sounds very exciting, of course, especially to those who like the idea of free college education. But, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as free college. The Community College of Rhode Island will continue to receive the same $2,074 per student per semester (plus the $208 fee) I assure you–the money will just come from somewhere else. Specifically, it will be included in the state budget, paid for out of state coffers. But where does the state get its money? From taxes, of course, paid by the residents of Rhode Island.

Rhode Island is not the first state to offer “free” college education. It is, in fact, the fourth. The first three are New York, Oregon and Tennessee. It is worth noting, then, that according to the Tax Foundation’s rating of the top marginal individual income tax rates as of June 1, 2017 only California and Maine have a higher rate than Oregon, where the rate is 9.9%. New York is among the highest rates as well, at 8.82%. (Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. fall between Oregon and New York though, other than Minnesota at 9.85% those states are all between 8.82 and 8.97%).

What about Tennessee? It’s income tax rate is a middle-of-the-road 5.0%. Nine states have a lower rate, besides the seven states that have no state income tax. But Tennessee actually only taxes interest and dividends income, meaning it would effectively be lower than most of those nine states with lower rates. So how does Tennessee pull off its free college program? It simply shifts the tax burden. According to the Tax Foundation, only Louisiana has a higher sales tax than Tennessee (9.98% to 9.46%).

As of July, Rhode Island’s state income tax rate was only 5.99%–but its sales tax rate was 7.0%, making it 21st in the nation. Keep an eye on tax rates in Rhode Island over the next four years of this program because it seems likely that one or both rates will increase. In Oregon, for example, despite its high income tax rate and low rate of purchasing power (it ranked 33rd in 2015 in the Tax Foundation’s comparison of regional price parities, examining the real value of $100), their free tuition program is already being altered. When it launched in 2016 only recent high school graduates were eligible. But, the state budget suffered a shortfall, and starting this year students from high-income families are not eligible, CNN reported. New York has similar restrictions; its program starts this year but it excludes students from families earning $125,000 per year or more. That does not seem particularly burdensome probably, to expect a family earning $125,000 to be able to afford college tuition, but New York ranks 49th in real purchasing power; only Hawaii is worse. The real value of $100 in Rhode Island is $101.32. In Oregon it is $100.81. In New York it is only $86.73. The likely increase in Rhode Island taxes is further supported by the fact that, according to Ballotpedia, Rhode Island, in fiscal year 2016 (before the implementation of the Promise Scholarship), had higher per-capita spending that Oregon for total state expenditures. Additionally, the Pew Charitable Trust report on August 4, 2017 entitled “Fiscal 50: State Trends and Analysis” indicates that Oregon experienced an increase in tax revenue from FY 2016 to 2017–while Rhode Island experienced a decrease. (Interestingly, New York and Tennessee also experienced declines–leaving Oregon as the only state with a “free college” program that experienced an increase in tax revenue over the past year). If Oregon cannot continue its program then, why would Rhode Island think it can? The Pew report also ranked states’ rainy day funds, or financial reserves. According to the report, the “total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 36.2 days” as of the end of FY 2016. Rhode Island fell just above that median, at 37 days. New York (47.9 days) and Tennessee (56.5 days) were well above the median.

One good thing about the Rhode Island scholarship is that it does have a string attached: according to The Hill, “Upon receiving the scholarship, students must also agree to stay and work in Rhode Island for as many years as they received tuition.”

It is telling that the state legislature did not go as far as Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo wanted it to go; she had favored covering community college tuition as well as covering two years of schooling at Rhode Island’s two public four-year colleges. Their refusal to do so shows at least some fiscal restraint among the legislature. Only time will tell, of course, how Rhode Island’s Promise Scholarship turns out. But even if it works (a possibility on which, I confess, I am skeptical) do not forget–neither lunches nor college educations are ever really free.

Abounding Grace

Every once in a while something comes along that those who read and follow this blog expect me to address. The death of Brittany Maynard is one of those issues. It has been covered in every news outlet–major and minor–and opinions have been shared by countless others. Indeed, people far more knowledgeable about assisted suicide and both the physical and emotional pain of a terminal illness have already offered their insights. So I doubt I am going to offer anything new, but I will offer my thoughts nonetheless.

In case somehow you do not know, Maynard was informed by doctors last spring that she had a likely stage 4 glioblastoma. They said she likely had six months to live. A glioblastoma is a tumor “generally found in the cerebral hemispheres of the brain, but can be found anywhere in the brain or spinal cord,” according to the American Brain Tumor Association, and they are “usually highly malignant.” Maynard then moved with her family to Oregon in order to be able to access Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. Maynard announced that she would end her life when her suffering became too great, and later announced that November 1 would be the day she would die.

According to an article on The Huffington Post on October 8 Maynard received her initial diagnosis last January, and seventy days later was informed of the progression of the cancer and the six-month time frame she likely had remaining. “After months of research, Maynard found care options in her home state of California were limited and that treatment would destroy the time she had left,” the article stated. So she moved to Oregon, where the state’s Death with Dignity act “allows mentally competent, terminally ill adults with less than six months to live to end their lives with self-administered medication prescribed by a doctor.” Four other states have such laws, though Maynard made it her mission at the end of her life to expand that option for others. She partnered with Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization which seeks to “raise awareness about the widespread need for death with dignity nationwide.”

“Brittany’s courage to tell her story as she is dying, and alert all Americans to the choice of death with dignity, is selfless and heroic,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee in a press release. And that is really what I want to address. Is it selfless and heroic to end one’s life in the face of tremendous pain and suffering? I would suggest that it is not.

Maynard told PEOPLE, “My glioblastoma is going to kill me and that’s out of my control. I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. So being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.” I have no doubt that a terminal diagnosis is incredibly terrifying. It is not my intention, with anything I say here, to minimize in any way the incredible challenge of receiving such a diagnosis and then deciding what to do, or not do. I certainly do not wish in any way to add to the pain Maynard’s family is no doubt already feeling. But what strikes me most about Maynard’s statement above is this phrase: “being able to choose.” The Right to Life movement is certainly focused predominantly on abortion, but euthanasia and assisted suicide are just as much a part of defending the dignity of life. Maynard, and those on the pro-choice side, believe that individuals should be permitted to make their own choices about taking the life of an unborn child, taking their own life when the quality of life is no longer what it could or should be or when the prognosis for the future is bleak and painful.

Several things need to be taken into consideration in this discussion. First, death is necessarily final. There is no second chance on death. A medical diagnosis is not. In 2013 Good Morning, America ran a story Heather Knies, a woman who battled not one but two brain tumors, one of which was a stage 4 glioblastoma. As of January 2013 Knies was still alive, six years after her diagnosis, cancer free. She had married and become a mother, even, despite the fact that radiation and chemotherapy can sometimes leave patients sterile. Knies, the story said, “broke the biological rules.” Interestingly put, though I would suggest that, difficult as it is to accept and understand, there really are no biological rules. God does whatever He wants to do. That is incredibly difficult to accept sometimes, and even frustrating, because we are left wondering why God heals some people and not others, why He allows some people to be afflicted with deadly diseases and not others…why, why, why. Like probably every child has heard from the parents at times, sometimes God’s answer is simply this: “Because I said so.” His ways are not our ways, and He owes us no explanation.

Joni Eareckson Tada knows about suffering. Having been paralyzed by a diving accident as a teenager she has lived for decades with both extremely limited bodily function and extreme pain. How frustrating must that be to not be able to use your body but to still experience pain?!? Commenting on Maynard’s choice, Tada wrote, “I understand she may be in great pain, and her treatment options are limited and have their own devastating side effects, but I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God.” Furthermore, Tada said, God “alone has the right to decide when life should begin and end.”

John Piper, addressing Maynard’s choice and Tada’s response to it, wrote, “The fact that suffering almost inevitably increases with the approach of death is often a terrifying prospect. Even those who are fearless of death tremble at the process of dying. … But this tragic fact — which the suffering apostle [Paul] knew better than any of us — did not change the truth: Giving and taking life belongs to God, not to us. And the suffering of our final days is not meaningless.”

I imagine it is not coincidental that WORLD Magazine‘s November 1 issue–the day Maynard had originally planned to die–includes an essay by Kara Tippetts. Tippetts has stage 4 cancer. Two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her prognosis has not improved. She writes, “Cancer has found new corners of my body in which to take up residence. But so has God’s grace.” The response of Kara Tippetts to a death sentence is completely different than the response of Brittany Maynard. I do not know either woman. What I do is that Tippetts knows Christ and she has accepted His sovereignty. She has also accepted that He has a purpose and a plan, even though it is not the plan she and her husband had in mind and is not the plan either of them would have chose or wanted. Rather than choose to end her life when she wants to, how she wants to and without suffering, like Maynard chose, Tippetts has chosen to embrace the suffering because she knows that it is temporary and that there are things far more powerful than physical pain. Yes, she is dying and no doubt in pain, but that is not what Tippetts has chosen to focus her attention. “I get to love my children and my guy with this abounding love that comes from Jesus. But I also get to meet my last breath knowing a much greater love will meet my family. The abounding love I know from Jesus will love them long past my last moment on this side of eternity–and that love will be breathtaking. More and more, abundance and grace meet us where my body is becoming less and less. That is grace. I never deserved to know such abounding love, but it is ours in Jesus.”

I am not alone in wishing that God did things differently sometimes. I am not alone in wishing that God would explain Himself. But Kara Tippetts has it right. The abounding love of Christ is far greater than the pain any of us may bear in this life–even those dying from stage 4 cancer. We do not know what God may do. He may choose to spare someone’s life in a miraculous way, as He did with Heather Knies. He may choose to let cancer run its course, and He seems to be doing with Kara Tippetts. Whatever He may choose to do, He is the only One with the right to choose. Brittany Maynard had no right to end her own life. She is not God. And God always has a plan.

And we wonder…

The December 15 issue of WORLD magazine included a page with short articles about education issues (page 72). Collectively, these three articles reveal quite a bit about the problems with public education in America today.

The first article is entitled “School’s Out,” and looks at the battles going on in Chicago and Washington, D.C. over school closings. Of course, Michelle Rhee faced incredible pressure over closing underperforming (a very polite way to say “failing”) schools during her tenure as chancellor of D.C. schools. But the reality is that Chicago and D.C. are losing students at a considerable rate–Chicago’s student is down 6% over the last decade, but D.C. is down around 35%. (And while the percentages are staggeringly different, the difference in number of students is small: 25,270 students lost in Chicago, 27,681 lost in D.C.).

There are, of course, many factors that may contribute to the decrease in enrollment in urban areas, including families moving into the suburbs, more families choosing nonpublic schools, and the poor quality of the public school systems.

Regardless of the reason, though, anyone with any knowledge about business operations would recognize that maintaining things “as they are” in light of a 6% or 35% decrease in consumers is a recipe for failure. What restaurant would maintain the same number of locations or the same staffing levels after a 35% decrease in customers, for example? And yet the Chicago Teachers Union is vehemently opposing the closing of any schools. Of course this should not come as a huge surprise after Chicago teachers went on strike early this school year, and had the audacity to claim that their demands were in the interests of students. CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey stated, “If you close our schools, there will be no peace in the city.” Ah…how refreshing to see such a spirit of compromise, or even a willingness to acknowledge that sometimes tough decisions have to be made in order to save a sinking ship.

In Chicago half of the students drop out; in D.C. the figure is 40%. Eighty percent of fourth graders in both cities struggle to read. And in D.C. the opposition to embracing reality is not only among the public school teachers, but among city council members, who strenuously oppose the closing of schools in their wards, despite the fact that new Chancellor Kaya Henderson says that many schools are half-empty, resulting in a considerable waste of money.

Moving on, beneath “School’s Out” is an article entitled “Musical chairs.” This article begins by introducing Jessica Keskitalo, a high school history teacher in Beaverton, Oregon who is teaching seventh-grade math this year, after all of a “half day of math training.” And Keskitalo is not alone as she spends the year in unfamiliar territory; according to the article, she is one of 365 teachers in the Beaverton district who were “shifted by seniority” to replace teachers who were laid off. In other words, the school district needed to make cuts, and they did. But, “Oregon requires districts to lay off teachers with the least experience first, instead of assessing expertise and classroom needs.” Oh good…another example of putting the needs of the students first! (Sorry, sarcasm seems to be dripping out of me today).

According to Beaverton officials, some 160 teachers were placed in “significantly different positions” this year. Keskitalo, for example, had never taught mathematics, and her only experience teaching middle school students came during one month of her student teaching. The article states that neither the principals in Beaverton nor the teachers had any say over the new assignments. Another example provided? Beaverton “transferred district librarian Jenny Takeda into a third-grade classroom one week before the Oregon Association of School Libraries named her the Librarian of the Year.” Takeda opted not to accept the assignment, so she is now a substitute teacher as she tries to figure out what her future holds.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, as cited in the article, reports that, “the overwhelming majority of school districts use seniority as the only determinant of teacher layoff decisions.”

Lastly, the right column of the page contains an article entitled “Fox in the Henhouse.” This one describes the fact that union official Glenda Ritz was chosen by voters to be the new state superintendent of Indiana schools, ousting Tony Bennett (not the singer, but a “nationally recognized school reformer”). Why is that a problem? Because Indiana has in place one of the “biggest statewide voucher program[s], teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, and new grade-by-grade tests and curriculum requirements shared by 46 states.” Ritz, however, “dislikes evaluating schools.” Hmmm…I wonder why? As a union official, her focus was undoubtedly on maintaining teacher jobs and increasing teacher salary and benefits, not on student achievement.

If this news is illustrative of the condition of public education in America is it any wonder that our students consistently lag behind students on other countries on tests? Should we be surprised that so many students drop out when council members and superintendents are focused more on teacher jobs than on student learning? Should we be surprised that students struggle to learn when teachers are randomly placed in classrooms because they have tenure, not because they have any training or even any clue how to teach the age and/or subject matter they have been assigned? I think there are a lot of very capable and very dedicated teachers in the nation’s public schools…but I think, for the most part, they’re swimming against the tide. They’re trying to do something that, despite the rhetoric, simply has not been made a priority–actually teaching students to learn.