California’s Higher Education System Is Worth Fighting For – And We Will

Sometimes I think there are two Californias out there. One of them is the California of small things and small thinking. It’s the California that is obsessed with petty anti-tax politics. The one that wants to gut social programs and dismantle our public higher education system. It thrives on driving wedges between us and promoting divisiveness. It’s the California of Prop 187, Nixon, Reagan, and Schwarzenegger. It includes a lot of people who hate government but are the first ones to complain when the garbage isn’t picked up.

The other California is the California of bold ideas and dreams of a better future. It’s the California that wants to conserve and protect its unique and beautiful state parks and wilderness, wishes to invest in its people, and seeks common ground among our diverse population. It’s the California that wants to create green jobs and values rights for humans as well as animals. It’s the California of Prop 215, John Muir, Cesar Chavez, and Harvey Milk. It’s the California that recognizes the vital role that our public colleges and universities play in laying the foundation for the state’s future. It includes a lot of people who hate the government too but would rather play Frisbee than do anything about it.

But the clear winner in recent years has been the California of small things and small ideas. Through an outdated flaw in the structure of governance one-third of the Legislature has a stranglehold on the state’s finances. The other two-thirds (the majority) knows the state is heading in the wrong direction but given its lack of control over the purse strings it’s left flailing around passing a lot of symbolic laws that go nowhere.

There’s no better illustration of the failure of our political “leaders” in Sacramento than the fact that they have left the state’s college students and their families, along with California State University and University of California faculty and staff members, no choice but to organize to fight against them. On March 4th there will be large demonstrations at every campus of the CSU and UC systems, as well as regional rallies in cities up and down the state (including at the Capitol Building), to send the clear message to our elected representatives that the budgetary onslaught against our public universities must end now.

In the State Legislature a narrow band of anti-tax zealots has launched a frontal assault on California’s system of higher education at exactly the time when people across the state who have been thrown out of work are seeking to attend college to learn new skills to help them prepare for new jobs. They’re incapable of seeing that investing in public colleges could also give the state’s battered economy a much-needed stimulus. For every dollar invested in a CSU or UC there’s about $4 of economic activity generated in the local community.

In 1944, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known as the GI Bill of Rights, which offered stipends covered tuition and living expenses to veterans who attended vocational schools or college. Between 1945 and 1950, 2.3 million students benefited from the GI Bill and their careers and accomplishments transformed American society for the better. Like the GI Bill, California’s 1960 Master Plan for higher education served the state’s social, economic, and cultural advancement by creating a highly skilled work force and a generation of innovative young entrepreneurs. So successful were California’s public colleges that other states and countries looked to our Master Plan as a model for their own public college systems.

But in recent years the system has suffered the same “starve the beast” mentality that has been leveled at government. In 1966, the state provided $15 for every one dollar in student fees. Today the amount is only $1.40 for every dollar in student fees. Our elected representatives in Sacramento believe that California’s higher education system is worth only forty cents? Even Governor Ronald Reagan increased the budget for higher education.

As we “celebrate” the 50th anniversary of California’s Master Plan for higher education the recent increases in student fees have forced thousands of students to either scale down their educational ambitions or pile on the units and work multiple jobs instead of focusing on their schoolwork. The so-called generous offer of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to increase funding this year for the CSU would only restore about half of what’s been cut from the CSU budget since 2007.

The colossal failure of our elected “leaders” to deal humanely with the state’s finances cancels out the efforts by well-meaning legislators who might be trying to do the right thing. As a result, there is deservedly zero respect for the Assembly, the Senate, and the Governor. We’re told that in a $1.8 trillion economy we face a “structural deficit” that requires us to demolish public institutions that took a generation to build. Suspiciously, as the student body in our public colleges has grown more racially diverse the calls for gutting their budgets have grown louder.

There are those inside the state government (a minority) who clearly do not believe in the mission of public higher education. The assault on the goals of the Master Plan is not going to stop after the election this November and it’s not going to stop by passing another Proposition. At this point we have no choice but to become the loudly squeaking wheel until the politicians who have so mismanaged our state’s finances and public institutions get the message.

It’s time to remind the Governor and the Legislature that the direction they’re leading the state is deeply unpopular, undemocratic, and wrong. We hear a lot about our failed governmental institutions but we also need to hear about our failed political representatives. On March 4th they might want to pay attention to the loud signal that the California that believes in building a better future is trying to send them.

Joseph Palermo

Republished with the author’s permission.

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