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October 15, 2009 3:11 PM Virginia, Higher Ed, and Taxing the Rich

By Jesse Singal

The Washington Post isn’t happy with the higher ed rhetoric coming from Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates:

LISTEN TO the promises of Virginia’s two gubernatorial candidates regarding higher education, and it’s hard to tell the difference. Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell both say that they will increase the number of degrees awarded while also making college more affordable. Also common to both: Neither has a clue as to where the state will find the money.
So Mr. Deeds says that he would add 70,000 degrees in the next 10 years; Mr. McDonnell promises 100,000 new degrees in the next 15 years. (Virginia’s institutions awarded 56,735 degrees in 2008-09). Frankly, it’s hard to keep a straight face, given the realities that have led to unstable and declining state support for higher education. Consider that general fund appropriations to public higher education in Virginia fell from 14 percent in 1992 to 11 percent in the current fiscal year. Virginia lags behind the national average for educational appropriations: $5,805 per student in 2008, compared to $7,059. Virginians seeking to go to college face such a financial burden that the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has given the state a failing grade for affordability.

This being America and all, Deeds and McDonnell each say on their campaign pages that they want to keep taxes low. Shocking, I know. (McDonnell is particularly crusader-like in his anti-tax rhetoric, pushing the old—and as false as false can get—canard that the Virginia’s estate tax, or “death tax,” as conservatives call it, primarily affects “family businesses and farms” rather than extremely rich folks. He proudly touts his role in helping to repeal it in 2006. This may not have been a good move.)

I’m about to say something really na├»ve, but I’m just going to go for it: If something as vital as higher ed needs funding, why not look to the rich to chip in a little extra, at least for the time being? Virginia is, by many measures, one of the more prosperous states in the country. And yet, as the Post points out, it’s not even average when it comes to higher ed funding. If we lived in a country with a sane political discourse, wouldn’t a wide range of rather painless options be open to the Commonwealth?

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.