Most observers of the American university are intimately familiar with the long-term decline and recent degradation of public higher education in California (if you need a refresher, check out Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal’s excellent overview in the new Dissent magazine). Unless you’re inside CA, however, you may have missed word of the time bomb that’s set to explode there in just eleven days.
California’s government is hobbled by its ballot proposition process, a seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time system by which any state law or constitutional amendment may be put to a statewide popular vote. Though the idea has an undeniable good-government appeal, in practice it rewards Californians with deep pockets and a knack for writing misleading referendum questions — as when a 1964 initiative sponsored by movie theater owners actually banned cable television in the state.
In the last forty years various initiatives have mandated spending on certain budget lines while placing various limits on the state legislature’s ability to raise revenue, squeezing funding for non-mandatory spending and exacerbating the state’s already profound budget problems. This quagmire is one, though certainly not the only, contributing factor behind the defunding of public higher education in the state.
Enter Proposition 30.
Proposition 30 is an attempt to address the state’s education funding gap through two temporary tax increases — a four-year, 0.25% hike in sales taxes and a seven-year bump in income taxes for Californians with annual incomes above $250,000. Revenues raised by the new taxes would be dedicated to public education.
The current California state budget assumes passage of Proposition 30, with various cuts built in should the proposition fail. Though most of the cuts would fall on K-12 education, another $838 million would be shared by the the state’s public colleges and universities, which have already seen $2.5 billion in cuts — and a series of staggeringly high tuition increases — in the last four years.
What does this mean in practice? At the University of California it would mean a 20% tuition hike, in a system where tuition already tops $12,000 a year. At Cal State it would likely mean a 5% tuition hike, the cancellation of a planned tuition rebate, and a reduction of enrollment by some twenty thousand students. Community colleges, which have already turned away half a million students over the last three years, would slash enrollment by another 180,000.
So how is Proposition 30 doing? Not well at all. Support currently stands at 46%, down from 55% a month ago. Voters are skeptical of state government and confused by another similar proposition (if both pass, the one that gets the most votes will go into effect, but significant numbers of voters are planning to vote only for the one they prefer). Additionally, the Los Angeles Times yesterday described Governor Jerry Brown’s campaigning on behalf of Prop 30 so far as “lackluster.”
And if you want to know more about how the state got into this mess, take a look at yesterday’s public statement from UC President Mark Yudof on Proposition 30. “Public higher education in California has been battered by declining State support,” he wrote, and the UC Regents have predicted that without Prop 30, “the ability of the University of California to ensure the high-quality education that Californians have come to expect will be jeopardized.” In that light, he continued, he wanted to make it absolutely “clear that it is neither my official place, nor my personal predilection, to suggest how others should vote.”
Bold words, strong words, from the head of the greatest public higher education system the world has ever known:
“It is neither my official place, nor my personal predilection, to suggest how others should vote.”
This, as TS Eliot wrote, is the way the world ends.