To say the campaign of Ed FitzGerald has been slow to take shape, let alone gain momentum, would be, well, one of those understatements. Yet this past week, there was more than a hint that the Cuyahoga County executive and Democratic candidate for governor may be ready to engage in a sharper way. He unveiled a plan to make college more affordable for Ohioans. In doing so, he not only identified a leading priority of the state. He began to define more clearly key differences with John Kasich, the Republican incumbent.
FitzGerald outlined four components. They are familiar in some ways, calling for reductions in administrative costs at universities and colleges, for expanded enrollment and improved use of community colleges, technical schools and vocational education. These are all important, and part of what the governor has advocated. FitzGerald made one departure in pressing for significant increases in need-based aid, or the Ohio College Opportunity Grant.
An Ohio looking to increase the quality of its work force must find avenues toward easing the steep cost of a college education. Need-based aid plunged as then Gov. Ted Strickland and state lawmakers looked to keep the state budget in balance during the recession. The moment long has past for recovering lost ground.
As FitzGerald pointed out, today need-based aid is roughly $150 million below the level of six years ago. No surprise that the governor’s allies leaped to accuse FitzGerald of wanting raise taxes. Just as predictably, the Democrat said he had no such thing in mind. What he did argue, and correctly so, is that the governor has advocated tax cuts at the expense of such spending.
This campaign should be focused on just that choice — between putting a sum, often relatively small, in the pocket of each Ohio taxpayer, or using the accumulated money to accomplish something larger for the state. Better lower tax rates, now approaching a 30 percent reduction and mostly benefiting wealthier Ohioans, or something less generous, making college more affordable for those lower-income households?
Be alert to the ripple effect, those graduates with less debt in a better position to buy cars, houses and otherwise add to the economic activity, not to mention the value their education brings to them and the rest of us.
The mid-biennium review bill, just signed by the governor, includes a work group to review financial assistance for higher education. Not exactly at the speed of business the governor touts. Ohio falls below the national average in the number of college graduates and in state spending per student. Tuition here covers 62 percent of the cost. The national average is 47 percent. So, Ed FitzGerald is right. All of this belongs at the front of the governor’s race, the challenger with a good question: What about need-based aid?