Wednesday, March 03, 2010

California's Higher Education 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 Proposition 187 (cutting services to illegal immigrants), Nixon, Reagan and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It includes a lot of people who hate government but are the first 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 theCalifornia that wants to conserve and protect its unique and beautiful state parks and wilderness, wishes to invest in its people and seeks common ground amid diversity.
It's the California of Proposition 215 (legalizing medical marijuana), 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.
Sadly, 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 Through an outdated flaw in the structure of governance, one-third of the Legislature has a stranglehold on the state's finances.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. Yet 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. Thursday, 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 the Capitol building). They will send the clear message to our elected representatives that the budgetary onslaught against our public universities must end now.
In the Legislature, a narrow band of anti-tax zealots has launched a frontal assault on California'ssystem of higher education. It's happening 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.
Like the GI Bill that helped 2.3 million students between 1945 and 1950, 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 it 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 40 cents? Even Gov. Ronald Reagan increased the budget for higher education.
As we "celebrate" the 50th anniversary of California's Master Plan, 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. The so-called generous offer of Schwarzenegger to increase funding for the CSU would only restore about half of what's been cut from its 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.
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 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.
Joseph Palermo, CSU-Sacramento
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Joseph A. Palermo is an associate professor of history at California State University, Sacramento.
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