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Don’t use ideology to dumb down N.C.

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

Poll

Should public universities de-emphasize Liberal Arts education?

With apologies to Bobby Jindal, or maybe commiseration, I have to ask: Is North Carolina aiming to become the stupid state?

We seem to be on the path.

Louisiana’s Gov. Jindal was in Charlotte last week for the Republican National Committee meeting. In a highly publicized speech, he chided the GOP for being the “stupid” party. Of course, Jindal then went on to tell Republicans to continue doing many of the things that have led to the questioning of GOP intelligence.

And there was this other bit of hypocrisy about Jindal delivering such a message, particularly his comments that “by obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet, we send a not-so-subtle signal that the focus of our country is on the phony economy of Washington, instead of the real economy out here in Charlotte, and Shreveport (La.), and Cheyenne (Wyo.).” In his Bayou State, which drags the bottom of national rankings on everything from education to infant mortality to poverty, Jindal has proposed an austere budget that slashes funding for higher education, preschool, Medicaid and other social services, and eliminates corporate and personal income taxes.

So much for not focusing simply on the zeroes on the budget sheets.

But in words and policy proposals, N.C. lawmakers seem to be set on following Louisiana’s example – and that of other less-than-stellar states on important scales of livability and success.

In fact, the Republican-controlled N.C. legislature and executive branch may be angling to lead the way in pushing or adopting nearly every policy or position on a conservative agenda that will make the poor poorer, the rich richer and leave the middle class gasping as they work ever harder to try to hang on and hang in.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s unfortunate radio diatribe against liberal arts education, and by inference, smearing of one of North Carolina’s institutions respected nationwide as a good value – its university system – is a bit player in that scenario. He repeated in his radio remarks one of the right’s favorite disparagements of the left these days – the “educational elite” – an ironic phrase to use as denigration of liberals since many successful conservatives have liberal arts educations, come from financially “elite” families and often attended private institutions that most regular folks could not afford.

But the scary part is that McCrory also said his staff is drafting legislation that would base funding of the state’s universities and community colleges on how many of the students can get jobs – and what courses they should take that will lead to jobs. How he or his staff would be able to appropriately make such an assessment is anybody’s guess. Better preparing students for the work world is something that colleges and universities must do. But skills gained from a liberal arts education are as valuable as those in technical and trade fields, studies show and experts say.

These kinds of attacks on higher education are part and parcel of the conservative playbook that aims to cut public funding for liberal arts schools. Bill Bennett, conservative host of the radio show where McCrory spoke, encapsulated the thinking when he said: “How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?”

North Carolina is amplifying conservative dogma in several policy moves.

School vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay-for-performance, cutting unemployment benefits, slashing preschool money, eliminating corporate and personal income taxes have all been on the agenda of N.C. Republicans, as they have been visibly on the agenda of conservative-run or -led states around the country.

This week, lawmakers began debating proposals that would reject state involvement in setting up health exchanges required under the Affordable Care Act and refuse expansion of Medicaid funding and return money to the federal government that would pay for the health needs of half a million low-income people.

Proponents of the move call it a new assertion of states’ rights but the genesis of such moves nationwide came last June after the Supreme Court upheld the health care law. In a fit of pique, Republican governors – Jindal was one of the leaders – declared they would not implement the law. The Christian Science Monitor said Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group with links to the Koch brothers, was a big prodder of the governors to resist the law’s Medicaid expansion and state-based insurance exchanges.

Their “resist, resist, resist” stand on the federal health-care law has echoes of Southern states’ resistance of the federal school desegregation law. Proclaiming “states’ rights” and decrying federal interference, states hoped to kill the law. They managed to drag out enforcement for two decades.

That’s likely the hope today too.

But as with resisting the desegregation law, that doesn’t make it right.

In fact, standing in the schoolhouse door of the health care law might be a gleeful finger in the eye of President Barack Obama, but it’s also a foot on the neck of residents of these states. In turning back federal money for the insurance exchanges, North Carolina and other states are rejecting tax credits and subsidies that would go to state residents and small businesses to help with the cost of health care – those breaks reportedly could be worth as much as several thousand dollars per person. And exchanges, which are simply gateways to help residents get access to affordable insurance, are expected to be weakened without state involvement. That would leave middle-class and low-income families still scrambling to find affordable care.

As importantly, without access to affordable insurance, many might go without insurance, and taxpayers would pick up the tab for their care in emergency rooms – a more expensive tab.

So let’s sum up: North Carolina is turning down money the federal government wants to give us, changing unemployment policy in a way that will mean thousands will lose federal money in addition to state dollars, standing in the way of health exchanges that will help residents get health care instead of relying on taxpayer-backed emergency room care, pushing more people into poverty, into homelessness and perhaps into crime.

States’ rights? Sounds like states’ stupidity to me.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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