AZ Rep. John Kavanagh: Working Hard To Keep Us Stupid

People learn a lot of valuable things in college, like how to solve quadratic equations, run a business, or turn a shoe into a bong. All important life lessons, to be sure, but according to Arizona Rep. John Kavanagh, students at Arizona’s universities need to be taught a lesson they’re currently not learning.

That lesson? That in America there are fortunately 49 other states to go to college in.

Or at least that’s the lesson students will learn if a bill Kavanagh introduced last week is ever made into law. The bill would force students at state universities to pay a minimum of $2,000, annually, toward the cost of tuition. That $2,000 can’t come from scholarships, financial awards, or grants that a student might receive; it has to come out of the students’ pockets and/or their parents’ withering retirement funds.

For the record, HB 2675 is not designed to save the state money, as it doesn’t affect, in any way, the amount of money Arizona’s legislature is currently not giving to universities.

Rather, Kavanagh proposed the bill because he believes students can’t appreciate the value of an education when they “have no skin in the game.”

Admittedly, it’s odd that Kavanagh wants students to value education, when he himself clearly doesn’t. Well, he at least doesn’t care about the education of others, because should the bill become law the dream of a higher education will only grow more illusory for thousands of lower-income Arizonans: You know, the people who would benefit the most from a college education.

Of course, Kvanagh might have some skin in the game himself. As a professor at Scottsdale Community College, his students won’t be affected by the legislation he’s sponsoring. In fact, SCC—and other local community colleges as well as private and online schools—will benefit from the bill, as many students unable to manage that extra $2,000 will likely opt to attend two-year institutions and private colleges—where they won’t be told they can’t use their Pell grants to cover tuition.

That’s not to say Kavanagh has a conflict of interest, only that he just wrote a bill that impacts state universities while, at the same time, working for a major competitor of those same universities. And if that’s a conflict of interest, you can just call me Mike Stevens.

So, um, yeah.

But back to Kavanagh’s reason for proposing the legislation. “Not everyone, but some people take things they get for free less seriously,” Kavanagh said after the “Give Me Your Lunch Money” bill was passed by the House Appropriations Committee last Wednesday.

And as a former teacher at ASU, I can’t say I entirely disagree with Kavanagh on this point. The truth is, students who were working jobs—even if only part-time—were in most cases more dedicated to their studies than were students on full scholarships or whose parents were covering the costs of school. And, while they weren’t necessarily any smarter or gifted than my other students, they probably did get more from their education than many of their peers.

That said, it’s not the government’s job to tell people what is and isn’t meaningful, nor is it the State Legislature’s duty to regulate perspective. The government’s job, when it comes to universities, is to ensure that all people have equal access to the opportunity higher education provides—not to limit opportunity, as HB 2675 does.

And it will severely limit opportunity. When I earned my MFA from ASU back in 2003, tuition was roughly $3,000 a year. Today, nine years later, it’s almost $11,000. That’s a heady bit of inflation, don’t you think? Ironically, a major justification for the annual tuition increases was to help the university provide financial aid to needy students—aid which this bill would render illegal.

Of course, the biggest tuition increases have come since the stock market crashed in 2008—a crisis Republicans were quick to take advantage of. Even before the Bush administration began rolling out its bailout for bankers, Republican legislators all over the country were gutting their state’s education systems. In the last three years in Arizona—or ever since Jan “Scorpions for Breakfast, shit for brains” Brewer became governor—the amount of the state’s budget spent on education dropped from just over 60% to just over 30%. And while the GOP will defend this dramatic reduction as a response to the times, they were simply being shameless opportunists: using the economic crisis as an excuse to reduce public schools to rubble.

Or, in GOP parlance, to level the playing field for private schools.

So, yeah, Kavanagh’s HB 2675 is just one more shot fired in the GOP’s war to privatize everything. But the bill presents many, logistical problems, particularly when it comes to forcing students to roll up their sleeves and moonlight at Circle K so that each time they mop up a Slurpee spill they’ll appreciate their schooling more.

The truth, however, is that most students who currently don’t pay their own tuition aren’t suddenly going to go get a job to cover that $2,000. No, either their parents will pay more, or they will—in most cases—borrow more money.

In the end, the only thing that will change about their educational experience will be the number of years it takes them to pay off their student loans. And sadly, that appears to be the only real impact of Kavanagh’s bill: To punish apathetic students and their parents with a debt they’ll carry around for decades: call it a capitalist’s version of a Scarlet Letter.

Which brings us to the only group of people, aside from the aforementioned privates schools, who will actually benefit from this bill should it become law: the financial aid industry that provides all those student loans. In recent years, financial aid providers have been the target of increasing federal scrutiny for predatory lending practices, particularly in the arena of online education. With tighter regulatory policies in place, the financial aid industry is undoubtedly looking for new ways to grow its bottom lime. A bill like HB 2675 could prove to be a model piece of legislation for student loan lobbyists.

That’s assuming, of course, that it’s not already the model (ALEC, are you out there?).

The real shame for students, and America in general, is the net effect all of these GOP sponsored bills are having on education as a whole. Stripped of resources, hamstrung will silly regulations, America’s public education system has been weakened so greatly in the last four years, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll be able to compete, globally, any time soon. And considering the state of our economy, that’s a disturbing fact to consider.

Republicans like to brand themselves as the party that best understands the economy. They point to the economic boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s—which they attribute to Ronald Reagan and his trickle-down economics, a pyramid scheme which served the 1% quite well—as proof that Republicans are the ones best suited to fix a broken economy.

They are wrong, of course. The truth is that the boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s is the byproduct of the civil rights movement. In that movement’s wake, millions of Americans who previously never had access to education—higher or otherwise—suddenly were allowed in.

The ‘60s and the ‘70s saw an educational revolution in America and the birth of the first truly educated generation in the history of this nation. Men and women of all stripes and colors had access to the one tool that had historically been the sole provenance of the wealthy and the privileged: an education.

The result was the explosion of innovation in the sciences, the arts, and in medicine that was the core of America’s economy in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the end, the American education system gave birth to the most prosperous decades in our nation’s history.

And for some reason, the GOP has no interest whatsoever in allowing that to happen again.

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