Monday, April 25, 2016

Metaphor on Rails

Train stories aren’t my usual thing, though I have friends who enjoy them.  (Stephen Karlson, I’m looking at youuuu.  And Rebecca Townsend, who sometimes goes by “Becky” and does, in fact, have good hair, but is not Becky with the good hair.)  This one seemed like a ready-made metaphor, though.  It’s about the sorry state of the Washington DC Metro system, though it could easily have been about community colleges in America.

Apparently, the Metro system is faltering because decades of neglect have led to degraded service, which, in turn, is reducing ridership.  And why, you ask, has the system been neglected for so long?

  • Divided jurisdiction.  With Maryland, Virginia, and DC sharing responsibility, nobody is responsible.  
  • Deferred maintenance and short-sighted political decisions.
  • A lack of a dedicated funding stream for operating budgets.
  • “Nobody really believes in a safety-first culture; they only believe in it after the fact when something bad happens.  Really what they believe in is “Me get home first.”

Let’s just say I saw some family resemblances.

Divided jurisdiction?  State/county/student(federal) sources with different priorities.  Check.

Deferred maintenance?  Most community colleges in America were built in the 1960’s or early 1970’s, a genuine low point in American architecture.  (Not to mention interior design.  Harvest gold, anyone?)  And while donors like to put names on buildings, they tend to prefer new ones.  I’ve never seen a donor earmark money to redo an aging HVAC system.  Check.

Lack of operating funding?  Check, with a vengeance.  

Ample blame for disappointing results while cheaping out on the resources that could have prevented them?  Check.

The two systems suffer from similar failures of accounting.  Public transportation is expensive, but private transportation is much more so; it’s just that the costs of private transportation are much more hidden and diffused.  People who don’t pay much attention take traffic jams as neutral facts of life, but see train delays as the result of negligence or incompetence.  They recoil in horror -- rightly -- at a train wreck in 2009 that killed nine people, but couldn’t tell you how many multiples of that died in car accidents that year.

Similarly, public higher education is expensive, but much less so than public ignorance or private higher education.  It’s just that the taxpayer burden of expensive private higher ed is hidden and complicated, where appropriations to colleges are open and obvious.  Shut down community colleges, and good luck keeping newly-scarce nurses’ salaries from breaking the bank.  But that cost is a step removed, and requires thinking a step ahead.

In both cases, systems that serve huge swaths of the public suffer from the political inability to capture a significant fraction of the benefits they generate.  

The Metro piece would have been stronger if it had been comparative.  It suggests that the Metro is unique in crossing state lines, which would come as a surprise to anyone who has taken a PATH train.  And whatever the quirks of DC, the BART in San Francisco and the T in Boston are struggling similarly.  That suggests that the issues transcend any one person or set of people.  They’re structural.

Within higher ed, different systems have their various quirks, but community colleges across the country are struggling.  That suggests that the issues transcend any one person or set of people.  They’re structural.

Some contend that the answer is to give up on the public provision of anything, and to resort to a sort of Randian hellscape.  But that ignores the real and substantial public resources poured into supporting supposedly private transportation and education.  And it writes off entirely the folks for whom public options are the only practical options.  Somalia’s experiment with the absence of government doesn’t seem to have led to a libertarian paradise.  Perhaps there’s a flaw in the theory somewhere...

Yes, both systems need to work on internal improvements.  But at some level, real improvement will rely on resources commensurate to the benefits provided.  That will require political leadership far beyond what we have seen to this point.  But the fact that both systems exist at all -- that they were humanly created in the first place -- gives me hope.  We’ve had moments of clarity before.  We can have them again.  We just have to be willing to pay the fare.