Thursday, April 18, 2019

Messing with Texans

As a political scientist, gerrymandering offends me.  It’s the process by which electoral districts are redrawn to guarantee certain outcomes.  In essence, it flips the script of representative democracy; instead of voters choosing their representatives, representatives choose their voters.

That said, it never occurred to me that community colleges would use gerrymandering against each other.  

That’s essentially what’s happening in Texas, as the legislature discusses a bill that would allow Lone Star College to annex a high-revenue town from Lee College’s district.  Lone Star would have the option of annexing three different towns, according to a local report, but expressed interest only in the most lucrative one.

It’s a remarkable move.  

As a partial excuse for my blind spot, I’ll note that I’ve worked in states in which community colleges don’t have “districts.”  In New Jersey, they’re defined by (and partly funded by) counties. Whatever is in your county is in your county. There’s some incidental poaching along county lines when a given town is closer to the other county’s campus, but it’s pretty mild.  In Massachusetts, they don’t have defined service areas at all; each college recruits where it can. For instance, when I was at Holyoke, the city of Springfield was one of its biggest feeders, even though Springfield had its own community college in it.  That wasn’t considered weird.

But for colleges with defined geographic districts to cherry-pick the richest towns from neighboring districts would be a foreign concept.  

Not living or working in Texas, I’m willing to believe that there might be more to the story.  But if there isn’t, and it’s really as brazen and awful as it seems, it should stand as a cautionary tale.  Institutions starved of legitimate resources will resort to desperate measures to feed themselves. Part of what we buy, when we direct operating funds into public colleges, is insulation from the “red in tooth and claw” side of the marketplace.  That allows colleges the option of behaving ethically and still surviving. When we desiccate that funding stream, colleges are sometimes forced to choose between ethics and survival. Cannibalism is a predictable, if horrifying, response to famine.  The behavior of for-profit colleges when enrollments drop isn’t admirable, but it’s understandable. Forcing public colleges to behave like for-profits increases the likelihood of similar abuses.

Gerrymandering isn’t admirable in any case, but for community colleges it’s especially bad.  They exist, in part, to serve people who can’t afford other options. Deliberately excluding lower-income areas from service districts is counter to the mission, even if it’s understandable in immediate budgetary terms.  The conflict between those two shouldn’t exist.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those in Texas, is there more to the story?  Has anyone seen a similar dynamic play out elsewhere? I’m concerned that while the particulars of this story are necessarily local, given the long-term trends we face, this might become as normal as gerrymandering in politics.  And with consequences just as bad.