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California's Struggle to Save Higher Education Continues

Joe Palermo: We aren’t going to sit idly by and watch as this precious public resource that contributes so much to our state and to our local communities is torn apart in service of an extremist ideological agenda of a recalcitrant Republican minority

On April 13th California State University students and faculty are organizing demonstrations at all 23 CSU campuses across the state to protest the latest wave of brutal budget cuts. CSU students, faculty and staff, alumni and their families have a special obligation to make their voices heard in supporting pragmatic solutions to the state’s budget woes that have so adversely affected public higher education. We refuse to sit by passively and watch as the public sector of this state – most notably higher education – is systematically decimated.

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California’s fiscal crisis, like that of many other state governments, is a product of the Great Wall Street Toxic Waste Dump of 2008. After the bankers’ recklessness ignited a financial hydrogen bomb, home values plummeted, life savings and retirements evaporated, jobs vanished, and California’s tax revenues dried up by about $20 billion a year. Lower valued homes shrank property taxes and unemployed people cannot pay income taxes. Yet, as in Wisconsin, we’re told that the crisis is somehow the fault of teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, social workers and other public employees.

The Republican legislative minority in California has killed every good-faith attempt to address realistically the state’s fiscal mess. After months of pretending to “negotiate” the “GOP 5,” in the name of the minority, conjured up 53 brand new demands before they would agree to allow California’s citizens the opportunity to vote on extending existing taxes. This blatant obstructionism came after Governor Jerry Brown and the Democratic majority sought bipartisan support by cutting the state budget by about $13 billion, including another whopping $500 million downgrade in the funding of the CSU system.

For Democrats, the late budgets, cobbled together budgets, and draconian cuts to programs (like higher education) that serve their constituents only make them look like hapless co-conspirators in the attack on the public sector. If we follow the Republican’ lead California will trail behind Mississippi in every social indicator save for the size of our prison population.

The California Republicans’ ultimatum was nothing but a cynical attempt to derail the possibility of negotiating a budget (except on the their terms). They are clearly willing to throw the state over the cliff, and Governor Brown cannot “shame” them by explaining how painful an “all-cuts” budget would be. These people know no shame. They hate anything with the word “public” attached to it, public libraries, public parks, public schools, public employees, public higher education.

The Republican minority skates by free of accountability enjoying the best of both worlds: they can tie the government in knots holding the budget hostage to demand their maximum concessions, while blaming the Democratic majority for not “being able to govern,” because, after all, they are in the majority. The logjam never seems to be broken, year after year, even amidst abnormal times of long-term high unemployment, a collapse in housing prices and a moribund construction sector. Still, the Republicans will not budge, even when the state faces an unprecedented crisis. Someone should ask the simple question: How can these men and women call themselves “public servants” when they are so failing in their service to the public?

What we’ve been witnessing in recent years is nothing short of the wholesale auctioning off, often to the lowest bidder (or no “bidder” at all), of the public commons right under the feet of the majority of California’s citizens who never signed on to this long-term project of not-so “creative” destruction.

California’s economy has little chance of recovering from the Great Recession if we remain mired in a politically generated fiscal crisis that prevents us from investing in our future. Unwise public policy today has a tendency to come back and haunt us later. The decision to de-fund higher education amidst prolonged high unemployment and underemployment and record home foreclosures will go down in the state’s history as one of the stupidest public policy choices ever taken.

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In California’s $1.7 trillion economy the money is there to deal with the debt. Since the Republican minority has effectively blocked the option of putting to the voters extending the existing taxes we should begin gathering signatures for a proposition that raises taxes on the state’s richest corporations and individuals with the revenues reserved for education at all levels, from kindergartners to doctoral students.


The Republican minority’s obstructionism, even in a time of great economic turmoil, has brought with it an astonishing level of cynicism to our public discourse. It poisons our politics with paralysis, poisons our society with unmet needs and unnecessary suffering, and poisons our democracy because of the arrogance of minority rule. People who do not believe in government shouldn’t insist on being part of it.

Just take for example the kind of “leadership” a California state senator like Ted Gaines (R-Roseville) provides his constituents. He sends his own children to private school while stubbornly ensuring that the children who have the unfortunate fate of living in his district (and whose parents cannot afford private school) are warehoused in schools that are little more than hollowed out shells after years of heartless budget cuts Gaines supported. And now Gaines is a proud member of the Republican minority that refuses to allow Californians even the opportunity to vote on whether or not to extend a set of existing (regressive) taxes to deal with the budget.

California doesn’t need any more budget “deals” negotiated behind closed doors. The ongoing budget crisis affects all Californians and we should have a right to vote on sensible measures to address it. What’s truly amazing is that even after Governor Brown and the Democratic legislative majority met the Republicans far past “half way” with $13 billion in savage budget cuts that tear apart Democratic constituencies, neither the Republicans nor the press give any credit whatsoever to the Democrats for this huge sacrifice. The frame on the budget debate gives the Democrats absolutely zero credit for the cuts that hurt them politically with their base. The Republicans move the goal posts and the Democrats simply shrug and continue the game as if nothing has changed.

But the dysfunction does not stop at the state Capitol, it can also be found in the CSU Chancellor’s office and the Board of Trustees who seem content to oversee the diminution of the institution they are “entrusted” to protect so long as their six-figure salaries and perks continue as if nothing has changed. In recent years the CSU faculty has endured furloughs and waves of budget cuts. Academic departments have been under great pressure to make do with less and stuff more students into fewer courses. Meanwhile student fees have shot up over 200 percent in the past two years. These days either you earn a college degree or you will most likely spend the bulk of your productive life in some backwater job somewhere. Who represents the students and their families who are being held hostage?

The budget constraints have led the CSU administration to put into overdrive its business model for higher education, to treat education like a “business,” like a “product” that is “delivered” to a “customer.” The administrators say that “efficiency” will improve the system. Unlike the “University” of Phoenix, or Kaplan, or other for-profit diploma mills that have bestowed millions of dollars in profits on their CEOs and shareholders, the cash-strapped public colleges and universities are operating on shoestring budgets. The irony is that as CSU administrators seek to save money due to the drying up of funding they’re pushing the system in the direction of the for-profits by slashing course offerings and railroading more and more students into on-line courses that are virtually identical to Phoenix or Kaplan. So the end result is a situation where parents and students are paying more and more each year in fees and tuition and other expenses, driving up their debt ratios, and often working longer hours to finance their educations, while the administration stuffs them into ever-larger classes or into cookie-cutter, standardized Internet courses.

My colleagues and I refuse to believe that the majority of Californians agree with the Republican minority in the Legislature that today’s young people should be cast off like so much dead weight. The future of this state depends on the brainpower and skills of these young people. Tens of thousands of potential CSU students who are clamoring to enroll are being left out in the cold. Why are today’s young people less deserving of having access to a high quality, low-cost education than someone who came through the system twenty or thirty years ago?

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On April 13th CSU students and the California Faculty Association will be demonstrating at CSUs across the state. We call upon everyone who values public higher education in California, (or has benefited from having access to it), to please join us in delivering the message to our elected “leaders”: We aren’t going to sit idly by and watch as this precious public resource that contributes so much to our state and to our local communities is torn apart in service of an extremist ideological agenda of a recalcitrant Republican minority.

Joseph Palermo
Joseph Palermo's Blog