Charter universities: Let the controversy begin

In cash-strapped states where governors are proposing major cuts to services, some public universities that face deep cuts are set to adopt an innovation from the K-12 world: chartering.

A story in Stateline last week reported that several states, including Wisconsin, are proposing to cut loose some of their public universities from certain state regulations in return for less public funding. This means — and here’s what will likely prove controversial — the schools will have more flexibility in setting their own tuition rates.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison could have more freedom to set its tuition under new budget proposals (photo courtesy of Daniel J. Simanek)

The plans sound a lot like the model for K-12 charter schools, which are given more autonomy from the rules that govern regular public schools (although that doesn’t always mean they get less money; in New York City’s case, they get more).

Ohio is also in the process of making the state dollars that universities receive contingent on graduation rates — which sounds similar to the concept of charter schools, which can be shut down if test scores are too low.

The idea of charter universities “will raise questions about the core mission of state universities whose original purpose was to offer an affordable education,” the Stateline article says. That is, if state universities are allowed to set tuition rates, they’ll likely raise them, which could end up reducing the access of low-income students (who tend to do worse academically than their more affluent peers) to higher education. And that could bring the perennial charter-school questions into the world of higher ed: do charters cream the most successful students from the available pool, and do accountability provisions create incentives for charters to do just that?