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From Master Plan to No Plan: California's Education Failure

There appears to be a growing consensus that higher education needs to be a priority again. Those tuition hikes and rejection letters are now affecting a bigger slice of the electorate.

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California has gone from having a Master Plan for Higher Education to having no plan for higher education.

In 1959, the Legislature mandated the preparation of “a Master Plan for the development, expansion, and integration of the facilities, curriculum, and standards of higher education, in junior colleges [now Community Colleges], state colleges [now CSU], UC and other institutions of higher education in the state, to meet [its] needs during the next ten years and thereafter…”

In 1960, lawmakers passed, and Gov. Pat Brown signed, the Donahoe Act, which codified portions of that Master Plan.

By the mid-1960s, the Golden State’s system of higher education was the crowning glory of a pulsing economy. Higher ed, particularly the UC system, ruled Sacramento.

A phalanx of powerful UC lobbyists routinely wined and dined legislators. And they usually got most of what they wanted in the way of appropriations and policy.

How the mighty have fallen.

The decline in higher education’s policy and political clout began in the unfriendly milieu of Gov. Ronald Reagan’s administration, as the tumultuous Free Speech Movement and Reagan’s “cut, squeeze, and trim” philosophy of government shook California’s campuses.

It continued during the 1970s, in the first gubernatorial tenure of California’s current chief executive, Jerry Brown, whose “Lower your expectations” mantra collided head-on with the Master Plan’s “vision” of California’s higher education system.

The passage of 1978’s Proposition 13, which strained sources of education funding, and 1988’s Proposition 98, which guarantees a minimum level of funding for K-12 education and community colleges, further squeezed the UC and CSU systems.

The University’s lobbyists—and their legislative allies—were no match for the use of the initiative process by dissatisfied interests and voters.

Today, higher education is fighting for state budget scraps. The anti-tax movement’s hammerlock on the revenue side has squeezed higher ed resources to the breaking point.

Tuition and fees at the University of California and State Universities have skyrocketed and some elite schools at UC’s major research campuses are openly mulling going private.

Rather than expanding access, as the Master Plan envisioned, student applicants are being turned away and admissions are being capped helter-skelter.

Underfunded community colleges are unable to meet demands for key class offerings.

Just recently, Santa Monica City College students, protesting increased prices for courses, were pepper-sprayed by police. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the college billed the increases “as a way to meet demand for key courses despite the withering of state financial support.”

The use of pepper spray on students protesting tuition increases at UC Davis led to a scathing report, criticizing “failures of leadership and communication at nearly every level.”

Faculty associations are dwarfed in influence by the California Teachers Association and other powerful, public employee unions.

Neither higher ed faculty nor alumni are perceived as sources of the big campaign contributions needed to win access to policymakers.

There appears to be a growing consensus that higher education needs to be a priority again. Those tuition hikes and rejection letters are now affecting a bigger slice of the electorate.

The Brown administration has taken note.

The January budget summary says: “The state will increase its General Fund contribution to each [higher education] institution’s prior year base by a minimum of four percent per year, from 2013-14 through 2015-16, contingent upon the passage of the Governor’s tax initiative.”

Come November, that could provide a short-term fix. But it’s still no master plan for higher education.

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