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California Community College Budget Crisis


John MacMurray

California Community College Budget Crisis

Before we begin, please keep the following numbers in mind: $7.00 and $10.00. Then hold onto 92 and 164. They all relate to public education, and we’ll explain them in a minute.

By making public education the focal point of California’s ongoing budget mess, Republican legislators in California and other states seem to be demonstrating one of two sets of ideas: either they do not truly understand the contributions public education makes to society; or they do understand, and just dismiss them because their ideology insists that private schools are per se better, despite any supportive evidence.

What the evidence shows, in fact, gives us the $7.00 figure. That’s the dollar amount, the Return on Investment, that public K-12 education pays back directly to the community.

The $10.00 figure comes from adding $3.00 to this amount for the increased value Community College graduates bring to the community.

In both cases, the money comes both from the higher earnings and spending power educated citizens bring to the communities, and from money that is not spent on incarceration and welfare. The payback is higher from money spent on the pre-K to third grade students, although payback time is longer; it’s lower for the secondary students, although payback is quicker.

The numbers come through the research of Dr. James J. Heckman, and the Committee for Economic Development. And before the skeptics in the audience dismiss these two as just another example of the “facts-made-to-order” brigade, a liberal version, if you will, of the CATO or American Enterprise institutes, consider that Dr. Heckman teaches Economics at the University of Chicago and shared a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2000.

The Committee for Economic Development is a nonpartisan, business-led policy group, founded in 1942 by a group of business executives. It has focused on national priorities that promote sustained economic growth and development to benefit all Americans. The CED drafted the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s. It has focused on education reform in the past two decades, and campaign finance reform since 2000.

So, the numbers represent actual data based on actual research, from people who do not have a direct political or financial stake in the results.

But wait, as the infomercials exhort us; there’s more. In this case, it’s more benefits over a longer time. Because Dr. Heckman’s research focused on the K-12 segment of public education, the significant contributions these graduates made through their later work isn’t figured in. And it needs to be, so we get context.

But first, consider the following two statements:

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  1. As we hear frequently and loudly from the media and the experts they quote, American elementary and secondary education is below the academic level of education in other countries, particularly in science and mathematics.
  2. The quality of American colleges and universities is generally considered to be exalted in the world of postsecondary education.

How could both of these statements be correct? Obviously they can’t. In fact, the second statement is absolutely true, while the first statement is absolute nonsense. American colleges and universities attract students from all over the world, particularly in science and engineering because they are widely perceived to be the best in the world.

Universities are as good as their students, and American universities are filled primarily with students who come from American high schools.

Back to the numbers mentioned in the first paragraph. 92 is the number of Nobel Prizes awarded since 1950 in physics, chemistry, and medicine -- the so-called hard sciences -- to Americans educated in American public elementary and secondary schools. This is 25% of the total, and more than the next three countries (Great Britain, 46; Germany, 30; and Switzerland, 12) combined. Japan, a favorite country of comparison, won 6.

Put it this way, just for perspective. If an NBA team outscored a rival NBA team 92-46, the story would be all over the newspapers and television. If the winning team were an underdog team, say the Sacramento Kings, who beat a heavy favorite, say the L.A. Lakers, by that much, the news would be broadcast even wider.

California Community College Budget Crisis

John and Ida MacMurray

And just imagine what the reaction would be if a public high school basketball team beat the Lakers 92-46. Given the differences in structure between European schools and American schools, this is just what has happened. American high schools beat Great Britain 92-46. They beat Germany 92-30, and beat Japan 92-6.

Add in the Nobel Prizes for Economics (18), Literature (9), and Peace (8); and two of the multiple winners (John Bardeen and Linus Pauling), and the prizes won before 1950 and we have a total of 164 Nobel prizes won by American public school students. And we have a very lopsided win record in the world arena for American public schooling.

Therefore, for Republican legislators, including the Governor, to ignore the immense return on taxpayer investment from public education and treat it as simple overhead and cut funding (and lose matching federal funds) makes no sense.

Unless you look at it as ideology. Then it makes a mean, selfish, bullying kind of sense.

by John MacMurray

John MacMurray teaches 7th grade language arts and social studies at Ladera Vista Junior High in Fullerton. He's pictured with Ida, his wife of 32 years.