I ran into a fellow Santa Monican, a long time friend, at the YMCA recently and he was livid. Turns out his younger child can’t get the classes she needs for her sophomore year at San Francisco State due to Sacramento’s budget cuts. Plan B is to attend SMCC instead. For students of the Cal State system (and their families), the current assault by the Governor and state legislature is a dual whammy. Tuition has been raised six times in the last seven years and has doubled during that time. Concurrently, the number of classes is diminishing which means many students cannot get the classes they need to graduate on time, or in my friend’s instance, even retain full time status as a second year student and stay covered by her parents’ health insurance. Students are paying more and more for California’s public system of higher education and receiving a rapidly declining level of service.
There is a third whammy — betrayal — and it affects not just students and their families, but all California tax payers. For decades many of us have been dutifully paying our state taxes, even passing bond initiatives, to build in good faith our university and community college system on the promise that would serve all deserving students and their families. We have created an immense asset that has served our state well by turning out an educated workforce and I trust, critical thinking citizens. Who could have imagined that one day a hostile governor (a public university alumnus by the way) and a clique of Republican obstructionists in the legislature would take command and change the ground rules on higher education? Note that the assault began seven years ago, long before the current recession hit.
If there is any good news it is that the current degradation of our state’s promise of public higher education began after the passing of former Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in 1996 (father of Attorney General Jerry Brown). The elder Brown was spared the spectacle of a world class higher education system unraveling. Pat Brown was a true visionary and during his eight years in office (1959-1967) he and his supporters embarked upon a vast infrastructure initiative that included not only a higher education trilogy of community colleges, state universities, and the University of California, but massive transit, water systems, and other foundations for the Golden State’s remarkable prosperity, a prosperity we all enjoy. Tattered and torn in many places, Brown’s legacy remains the basis of California as a working economy, indeed, the seventh largest economy in the entire world by some measures.
It is all about vision.
Does the upcoming election cycle offer relief from Sacramento’s current myopia? The early front runner on the Republican side, former EBay CEO Meg Whitman, has reportedly pledged to eliminate 40,000 jobs from state government overall, and while higher education employment is not immediate to the governor’s domain, she threatens line item veto budget cuts that will force higher education to either cut jobs or continue to raise student tuition. More of the same! Whitman received her undergraduate degree from Princeton, and MBA from Harvard, so one suspects that she recognizes the value of higher education as long as it is Ivy League.
Remaining candidates, both Republican and Democrat, have been largely mum so far on how to restore California’s public system of higher education. Stay tuned. And in the meantime, students and the families from Santa Monica to San Diego to Redding, hapless victims of an ugly political climate, continue to struggle.