Tighter budgets leave legislators looking for answers

There are times when it's fun being involved in major issues, taking part in the process, making a contribution ... all of the above.

And there are times when it's a lot more fun being on the outside looking in, letting someone else do the dirty work, gladly propping up the feet and allowing the blame to slide slap off the shoulders ... all of the above.

As it pertains to higher education in Mississippi, right about now seems a good time to be an observer rather than a participant.

See, it goes like this:

The economy's pretty much in the dumps - everyone pretty much agrees on that - so there's not as much money in the state's checkbook to pay teachers what they deserve or to keep up with the rapidly changing technology, and we won't even get into facilities.

And since the economy's pretty much in the dumps, there are not as many contributors contributing as much as they have in the past.

And since the economy's pretty much in the dumps, more people are choosing in-state, state universities over private colleges either in Mississippi or elsewhere, which translates into more students putting a greater burden on the already heavy-laden system.

And since the economy's pretty much in the dumps, more students are opting for Mississippi's community colleges, placing an even greater strain on that under-funded - not to mention under-appreciated - system of learning.

So here we've got our eight state universities and 15 state community colleges trying to educate more students with fewer teachers and declining resources.

Tuition has been raised already - all across the board - and there's more talk about jacking it up again - all across the board. So that's not the answer, or at least it's certainly not a cure-all.

The Mississippi Legislature is doing all it can; I really believe that. Gone are the days when the all white, all male power brokers would get together over whiskey and cigars in some smoke-filled room and decide our schools were already too fat. As a matter of fact, now that the Sun-n-Sand's closed in Jackson, gone are a lot of the smoke-filled rooms.

Anyway, the Mississippi Legislature, for all its shortcomings, has in recent years done right by all of education in the state, kindergarten through graduate school. Maybe not to the extent we think it should have, but, all in all, the Legislature has done a pretty good job of seeing to it that Mississippi students have an opportunity for a quality education right in their own back yards.

Gov. William Winter got the ball rolling back during his term, and since then, with one notable grumpy Republican exception, all other governors have placed an emphasis on education.

And even during that eight-year gubernatorial glitch, it was the Legislature that stressed the need for quality schools - the need for better colleges and universities to take care of the better students who were coming out of our better public schools.

What now, though?

How does the Legislature dish out bigger pieces of pie when the pie is smaller?

Well, one answer would be for the colleges and universities to cut back on the number of programs they're offering. As the saying goes: been there, done that.

So that puts us back on Square One: more students attending state-supported colleges and universities and expecting their demands for more programs, not fewer, to be met.

So what, then, is the answer?

Other than to cut our representatives and senators a little slack for a change, there might not be one clear-cut answer for now, or for the foreseeable future.

It might just be that come January, when the legislators head off for Jackson, we pat 'em on the back and wish 'em well, while muttering something like, "There but for the grace of God ..."

Danny McKenzie is associate editor of the Daily Journal.

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