California Needs to Take California Back

There’s a part of me that sometimes feels some sympathy toward our regents. I mean, they’re not necessarily in the best position to get things done if there’s no money coming from the state, right? But there’s also a part of me that gets really pissed off when I hear the rhetoric thrown around by protestors who say that the regents are greedy individuals only interested in privatizing the University of California system.

I think it’d be best for our patience and sanities if we looked at the less emotionally-driven side here — the actual lack of funding for public education in California.

A few weeks ago on Jan. 24, President Obama spoke at the University of Michigan to outline a new plan for higher education in America. To reverse the rising tuition rates and student debt, the plan would push states to stop cutting their education budgets and schools to become more efficient with their money. Colleges will basically be judged primarily on their affordability in terms of restraining tuition growth andfinding savings for students. Other factors include how well colleges prepare graduates, particularly low-income students, for the job market and repaying student loans.

A $1 billion sweepstakes would be used as an incentive to prevent states from cutting their education budgets, and another $55 million pot would be distributed to schools with the best ideas for addressing costs and keeping a lid on tuition prices. This program is widely based off Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competition created by the White House and the Department of Education in 2009 to award states for meeting certain educational policies in K-12 schools.

So would money be enough incentive for a cash-strapped California to change its policies? Can the UCs, CSUs and community colleges do any more to make their budgets more efficient? Besides raising tuition, that is.

On Wednesday, California Democrats, led by State Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, introduced a scholarship plan that would cut CSU and UC tuition by two-thirds for middle-class families. The “Middle Class Scholarship Act” would be paid, according to its official website, by “closing a wasteful out-of-state corporation tax loophole.” All students with family incomes less than $150,000 who do not have fees covered will receive the scholarship, which will slash fees by two-thirds.

Around 150,000 CSU students and 42,000 UC students would qualify, and they would save up to $4,000 and $8,000 per year, respectively. Community colleges would receive $150 million, and local districts would have discretion in using the funds.

Now, whether the plan passes with the required two-thirds majority in the legislature or not, this plan brings up two important points of interest: if both the scholarship plan and Obama’s performance-based plan pass, we can only wonder if the California Democrats’ plan would qualify as an attempt by the state to keep a lid on slashing the education budget. Secondly, and more importantly, the scholarship plan hopefully is a mark of California slowly regaining some local control over its education budget.

We’ve felt some of the effects of the drop in state contributions to higher education: the libraries close earlier and classes are larger and harder to get into. On a larger scale, however, the budget cuts since the economic downturn in 2008 contributed to an increased reliance on the federal government, rather than the state and local governments.

Here’s  California’s problem, and it goes back to when UC Irvine was still in its teens in 1978: Proposition 13.

Now, I don’t mean to feed into a debate that has flared up from time to time over the years, especially one that has been labeled “third rail,” or untouchable, but one of the major long-term effects of Prop 13 that we feel now is the conservative legacy of the anti-tax measure.

Prop 13 rolled back property taxes and made it difficult for legislators to increase taxes at all in California by adding a two-thirds majority requirement for any measures on new taxes. It effectively took the wind out of the sails of a liberal-dominated California.

On the other hand, while many critics of Prop 13 say California needs more tax revenue, the Census Bureau data shows that the taxes (property, income, sales and excise)  levied by the state and local governments per resident was 14 percent more than the other states in 2007.

So, while tax revenue may not necessarily be the main issue with Prop 13, the loss of state and local government power remains a legacy of the measure that, according to former Democratic governor Pat Brown, had “cut the guts out of a great government.”

Big government may be an averse term for many, but “great” government — more specifically, local and state government — is what California needs to go back to. Whether or not Prop 13 can or should be addressed, steps like the Middle Class Scholarship Act being discussed in the state legislature and the President’s incentive-based plan hopefully signify a trend where California, and other states as well, take proper responsibility for their students.

As for our regents, if the only course of action for them is to raise revenue, we’d prefer them to go talk to our state legislators and sort things out differently. Any more cutting of student services would be akin to amputating at this point, considering what we’re paying for.

 

James S. Kim is third-year English major. He can be reached at jamessk@uci.edu.