A Philosopher's Blog

Performance Based Funding: Taking the Fight to the Enemy

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2015

Since the whole “war on x” thing is overdone, I will not say that there is a war on public education. Rather, I will say that certain politicians have attacked one of the cornerstones of America’s democratic system and its economic strength, namely public education.

Scott Walker has aimed at eroding tenure at public universities in Wisconsin and Rick Scott has imposed an irrational and harmful performance based funding system in Florida. Similar attacks on public education are occurring in many states. Most states have also cut financial support for public education. While occurring under the guise of cost reduction and accountability, these attacks seem calculated at impeding independent research that might expose troublesome truths and also to open up new avenues of private profit at the expense of the public good.

In 2014 I wrote an essay critical of Florida’s harmful and ineffective (in terms of achieving educational goals) performance based funding system. Writing in 2015, my views of this system remain mostly the same; although the seemingly arbitrary changes in the rules have made me like it even less.

My school, Florida A&M University, took a beating under the existing system. This system, as I noted in the earlier essay, fails to consider the challenges faced by specific schools and the assessment system seems calculated to favor certain schools. Not surprisingly, the 2015 faculty planning sessions focused heavily on performance based funding. It was, in fact, the main subject of the keynote speaker.

This speaker took a rational and pragmatic approach to the problem. He noted that complaining about it and refusing to accept its reality would be a rather bad idea. Roughly put, failure to respond in accord with the punitive standards imposed by the state would simply doom FAMU to ever lower budgets. By meeting the standards, FAMU could escape the punitive level and thus push another school down into the pit of financial pain (the performance based funding system is such that there must always be three losers).

Being pragmatic and realistic myself, I agreed with the speaker. As a state employee, I am obligated to operate within the laws imposed upon me by the state. If I find them too onerous, I can elect to leave my job and head for greener pastures. To use the obvious analogy, if I choose to play a game under a certain set of rules, I am stuck playing within those rules. Muttering complaints about them or refusing to accept their reality will do me no good (other than the dubious benefits of bitching and self-delusion). As such, as a professor I am working conscientiously to meet the imposed standards so as to protect my school and students from the punishment of the state.

To use another analogy, it is like being forced to play a rough game by a movie villain—if we do not play by his rules, he will hurt people we care about. As with most movie villain games, it is set up so that winning means making someone else lose (regardless of how well everyone does, the three lowest schools always lose out on funding). Unlike with the movie villain, I am free to leave the game—I just have to abandon my colleagues, students, job, rank and tenure. The state, I must confess, makes finding a new game more and more appealing every year.

It is important to note that my conscientious adherence to the funding game rules is in my capacity as a state employee. However, I am not just a state employee—I am also a citizen of the state. While the state has the right to command me as an employee, the authority of the state rests on my consent as a citizen. And, as a citizen, I have every right to be opposed to performance based funding and every right to take action against it. I can write essays critical of it, thanks to freedom of speech. I can also campaign against politicians who support it and cast my vote accordingly. I can fund those who would oppose this attack on education.

The laws of the state are, obviously enough, not laws of nature or laws handed down on stone tablets by God. They are but the opinions of people made into rules by the rituals of voting. Thoreau eloquently made this point in his work on civil disobedience:


…why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible…


As Thoreau indicates, performance based funding, and any rule of the state, can be challenged—it was created by people and people can change it. As a citizen, I believe that performance based funding is harmful to the public good and, as such, I not only have a right as a citizen to oppose it I also have a moral obligation to do so. Meanwhile, as a state employee, I will be conscientiously working to ensure that FAMU meets the standards imposed by the state.

To close with an analogy, think of the public universities of Florida as ships that are under attack. Metaphorically, bombs, missiles and shells are raining down upon them, fired at the behest of an ideology opposed to this cornerstone of American democracy and economic advancement. Working within performance based funding is analogous to only repairing damage and extinguishing fire (and also to maneuver to force another ship to take the brunt of the attack). As any tactician knows, battles are not won by damage control or by letting an ally take the beating for you. Rather, they are won by taking the fight to the enemy. As such, I urge the citizens of Florida, especially students, faculty and staff, to exercise their rights as citizens to oppose the attacks on the public good of public education with their words, deeds and votes.


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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 14, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Mike, sadly you still have not connected the dots to understand why spending on education, scientific research, and infrastructure are all at sub-optimal levels. At the end of the day it is out-of-control entitlement spending that squeezes out every other form of spending. Until entitlements are reformed things will not get better.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 14, 2015 at 10:40 am

      If you consider tax breaks and cuts to be entitlement spending, then I agree with you to a degree. However, the decision to cut education funding is not primarily a matter of not having the money because it is being wasted on entitlements. Rather, it is a conscious choice to keep funding low, usually in conjunction with tax cuts.

      At the university level, what is helping to reduce funding for the core mission (education) is excessive infrastructure spending (the “rock climbing gym” issue) and primarily the bloated administrative numbers and salaries. Interesting, I am with the conservative ideology here-the biggest problem within the university is bureaucratic bloat. What we need is small government at the state schools. State legislatures seem either ignorant of these facts or unconcerned (interestingly, people often slide from politics to state college admin positions). So, they bash away at the overall budgets without focusing on the bureaucratic bloat they profess to loath.

      Unfortunately, the administration controls the money-so when budget cuts come what happens is that faculty and staff do not get cost-of-living “raises”, financial aid is cut, and people who actually do relevant work get fired (like the folks that keep the buildings operating and clean).

  2. nailheadtom said, on August 14, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    Public universities are basically a division of government and, like government, have the goal of not only survival but growth. No bureaucrat is truly successful until he has a growing number of lower bureaucrats under his command, which frees him from the onerous duty of staring at a monitor and pecking with two fingers at a keyboard and allows him to go to meetings and visit with his contemporaries. The idea that a university is some kind of an intellectual factory that forms ignorant adolescent material into rational, informed employable adults is laughable. Universities are in the business of staying in business and they do this with income from parking, athletic teams, research, tuition, and donations from altruistic but confused donors.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 15, 2015 at 5:37 am

      Statistics show that universities changed: there has been a massive increase in administrators and their salaries ramping up from the 1980s or so. Schools do still teach, but this has become a secondary or tertiary mission. As you say, they now exist to transfer funds to administrators. Big schools are also pro sport franchises.

      But this can be undone-what we make, we can unmake. If only the Republicans were serious about small government-instead of just cutting budgets and micromanaging education, they would step in and trim away the bureaucracy and aid the faculty in restoring schools to their proper purpose of education. But, politics is mostly about channeling money to the right folks.

      Maybe Bernie Sanders can help us out here.

      • nailheadtom said, on August 15, 2015 at 11:53 pm

        In the case of the University of Minnesota, the admissions office annually receives about 35,000 applications for a freshman admission and accepts a little over 5,000. Until those figures are reversed nothing much is going to change.

        • WTP said, on August 16, 2015 at 9:00 am

          annually receives about 35,000 applications for a freshman admission and accepts a little over 5,000. Until those numbers are reversed…

          OK, there are two glaring logic errors in this statement. One very obvious and, I must admit, rather petty. The other very deceptive, though I doubt NHT is attempting to deceive himself. Well, he’s deceiving himself, but that’s another other matter. Can anyone spot both of these logical errors?

          • WTP said, on August 16, 2015 at 12:39 pm

            Anyone? … Bueller?…

            Mike you know next to nothing about economics, and by extension, tax structure. This, OTOH, should be right in your wheel house. Can you spot the fallacies? You’ve written books on such, yes?

  3. T. J. Babson said, on August 15, 2015 at 11:58 am

    “If you consider tax breaks and cuts to be entitlement spending, then I agree with you to a degree.”

    I am all in favor of making the tax code simpler and fairer, but steps in that direction won’t radically change anything. You are still in complete denial about where the pressure on our public finances is coming from. Our entitlement spending is just not sustainable without major and painful reforms. This is where all the money goes:

    With the Social Security Trust Fund exhausting faster than expected, another obstacle to the sustainability of the program is rearing its head: Social Security benefits rest on fewer and fewer taxpayers. This week’s chart by Mercatus senior research fellow Veronique de Rugy uses data from the 2012 Social Security Trustees Report to show the number of workers that need to contribute to the system to ensure the benefits for one retiree.

    Most of the major shifts in worker-to-beneficiary ratios before the 1960s are attributable to the dynamics of the program’s maturity. In the early stages of the program, many paid in and few received benefits, and the revenue collected greatly exceeded the benefits being paid out. What appeared to be the program’s advantage, however, turned out to be misleading. Between 1945 and 1965, the decline in worker-to-beneficiary ratios went from 41 to 4 workers per beneficiary.

    The Social Security program matured in the 1960s, when Americans were consistently having fewer children, living longer, and earning wages at a slower rate than the rate of growth in the number of retirees. As these trends have continued, today there are just 2.9 workers per retiree—and this amount is expected to drop to two workers per retiree by 2030.

    The program was stable when there were more than 3 workers per beneficiary. However, future projections indicate that the ratio will continue to fall from two workers to one, at which point the program in its current structure becomes financially unsustainable.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 15, 2015 at 6:24 pm

      Social security spending does not impact state budgets-that is federal. So, that entitlement would not reduce the state money Florida has for its universities.

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 15, 2015 at 9:33 pm

        Social security is just the tip of the iceberg. It is affecting all government at all levels.

        Consider this:

        An examination of 50-state data in The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Fiscal 50: State Trends and Analysis, an online resource, shows that recovery varies widely from state to state. Tax revenue, employment rates, and reserve funds still are lower in a majority of states than they were before they plunged during the recession. While those measures are moving in the right direction, other pressures are building.

        For some states, one challenge is unfunded pension and retiree health care costs for public workers. In 44 states, these long-term retirement obligations are larger than the public debt from bond issuances and other state borrowing.

        An issue for all states is the prospect of further belt-tightening by the federal government, which provides nearly $1 in $3 of state revenue. States use federal dollars for a range of programs, particularly health care, education and training, and transportation and other infrastructure.

        Why does state fiscal health matter?

        All of these factors affect the fiscal health of state governments, which deliver critical services such as health care for the needy, education, transportation, and public safety. State finances also matter because of their impact on the U.S. economy. State spending and investment account for 3.4 percent of the nation’s economic output, and states provide about one-third of local governments’ budgets.

        What is Fiscal 50?

        Pew’s Fiscal 50 provides sortable 50-state data and analysis on key fiscal, economic, and demographic indicators that affect states’ fiscal health. Updated regularly, this online resource highlights trends, allows 50-state comparisons, and offers unique insights into the finances of state governments. Each indicator drills down into one of five core areas: revenue, spending, economy and people, long-term costs, and fiscal policy. Fiscal 50 is selective rather than comprehensive in choosing indicators. Each indicator is designed with states’ long-term financial well-being in mind, rather than the short-term perspective of what it takes to balance the budget each year.

        Here are seven key takeaways from Fiscal 50’s data and analysis:

        Tax Revenue. Nationally, total state tax revenue has recovered from its plunge during the Great Recession. But on a state-by-state basis, the recovery is uneven. Adjusted for inflation, tax collections in 29 states had not fully rebounded to their previous peak levels by the second quarter of 2014.
        Tax revenue volatility. Unexpected revenue swings can confound policymakers’ efforts to balance state budgets. A first-of-its-kind look at tax revenue volatility—minus the effects of tax policy changes—shows that Alaska’s tax revenue fluctuated the most and South Dakota’s the least over the past 20 years. Corporate income taxes and severance taxes on oil and minerals were consistently more volatile than other major state taxes.
        Federal Share of State Revenue. After reaching record highs in the wake of the Great Recession, the share of states’ revenue coming from the federal government fell in fiscal 2012 as the federal stimulus program largely ended and states’ own revenues rose. But for the fourth straight year, federal dollars still made up a bigger portion of states’ money than at any other time since at least 1961. In fiscal 2012, Mississippi had the largest percentage of revenue from federal dollars, 45.3 percent, and Alaska had the smallest, 20.0 percent.
        Change in State Spending. The expiration of federal stimulus aid affected state spending. Total expenditures of state and federal funds combined declined from a year earlier because increased spending from states’ own dollars did not make up for the sharp drop in federal aid. Still, when measured as a share of the economy, total state spending was higher than during much of the past two decades.
        Employment to Population Ratio. About 76 out of every 100 Americans in their prime working years had a job in fiscal 2014, compared with nearly 80 out of every 100 in 2007, before the recession. The decline in the employment rate translates to lower tax revenue for states and increased expenses for assistance programs for the jobless.
        Debt and Unfunded Retirement Costs. Although states pass balanced budgets, some spending commitments that will not come due for years go unpaid. Among these are long-term obligations for public debt and unfunded pension and retiree health care benefits. As of fiscal 2012, unfunded pension benefits were the dominant liability in 35 states, bigger than either debt or unfunded retiree health care costs.
        Reserves and Balances. Only 16 states estimated that their financial cushions would be restored to prerecession levels by the end of fiscal 2014. Although states’ rainy day reserves and general fund balances collectively have grown since the end of the recession, four states expected to have less than five days’ worth of operating costs set aside for unexpected expenses.


        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 16, 2015 at 10:55 am

          Florida had a projected surplus of almost $1 billion, yet education spending has not been restored after the massive cuts imposed under Scott. So, lack of state funds is not the problem.

          Social Security is doing just fine.

          Pensions are a problem, but the cause of the problem is not the pensions but Wall Street.

          Also, Social Security, pension funding and even state fiscal health are completely distinct from the issue of performance based funding.

          • TJB said, on August 16, 2015 at 6:01 pm

            “If you believe what the Pew Foundation or Brookings Institution has to tell you or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, unfunded pension liabilities threaten to sink state and local governments nationwide. Liabilities are painted as the issue the public needs to know about when it comes to retirement.”

            I can’t believe you are falling for this stuff. Do you really believe the WSJ, NYT, Brookings Institution, and Pew Foundation got it all wrong, but Al Jazeera somehow managed to get it right?

            It is really simple stuff, Mike. People are living longer and doctors have many more tools to keep people alive. It is all very expensive and the population is aging. No need to invoke Wall Street conspiracy theories from socialist writers.

            • WTP said, on August 16, 2015 at 6:56 pm

              I can’t believe you are falling for this stuff.

              Help me out here. I’m having a little trouble understanding why you find this so hard to believe.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 17, 2015 at 1:21 pm

              People also work longer. But, which seems more likely, that retired workers are wrecking the American economy or that the financial folks are doing the damage?

            • WTP said, on August 17, 2015 at 3:22 pm

              But, which seems more likely, that retired workers are wrecking the American economy or that the financial folks are doing the damage?

              While “retired workers” are a part of the costs involved, unlike the vast majority of what you polemicists toss around under the term of “entitlements”, much of that was paid into the system by those same workers when they supported people who are now long dead. This unlike the “disabled” benefits being paid out to large numbers of lazy and worthless “folks” who could work, which comes out of the same tax bucket (heh…as if, but playing along for your benefit). TV ads are full of lawyers begging to take on such denied disability claims. They don’t work for free, you know. The problem lies more with these volk and the gigantic wastes in HHS (by far the largest item in the Federal budget, inclusive of Medicare/Medicade)

              That said, what pray tell, do you know about damage “that the financial folks” have done? Please enlighten us as to what you think you know about the damage that banks have done? Has the government had no role in this damage? Nor academics and the huge debt load young people are taking on to pay your salary? Do you know who is going to pay for that when those students can’t find jobs with their afro-gay-transgender studies knowledge and then fail to repay their loans?

              But as I said above, you have repeatedly demonstrated that you do not understand these things. OTOH, you have written books on fallacies. As I asked above, can you spot the logical errors in this post:



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