|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Friday, May 14, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle 5-14-04
Jill Stewart: Education on a budget
Of the many complaints by Democrats about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget ideas, the most telling was the bitterness by some toward side deals he negotiated with leaders from higher education who, in talks with Schwarzenegger, agreed to temporary budget cutbacks and increased student fees.
Facing a roughly $15 billion budget deficit, Schwarzenegger worked out a so-called compact, as have three previous governors, in hopes of extricating higher education from the budget fight. But in key ways, the governor's deal to cut $660 million from universities goes beyond previous compacts. It requires dramatic new accountability from the two university systems that spend taxpayers' money but resist reform.
The California State University system churns out some of the most miseducated teachers anywhere. The Schwarzenegger compact requires CSU to work with the University of California system to prepare math and science majors for teaching careers.
Producing teachers who can handle math and science has been discussed ad nauseam for 20 years. Now, it's suddenly being addressed in the compact.
The compact also requires new systemwide accountability. For example, both CSU and UC agreed to monitor the number of years students take to graduate, and take steps to end the absurd practice in which students linger on for five or six years to get a four-year degree.
This "time inflation," caused in part by the universities' own failure to provide for orderly completion of required courses, causes lingering undergraduates to take up space and creates all sorts of unnecessary extra costs. What a mess.
The governor also addressed the long overdue need to raise university tuition fees to bring them in line with reality. University tuition is so heavily subsidized by California's taxpayers that even with the proposed fee hikes the price to students will still be far below the national average.
A proposed fee increase of 14 percent next year means UC students will pay only $6,230. Elsewhere in the nation, similar public universities charge an average of $7,420, even though California's universities have higher labor and overhead costs than most states. California students will still be heavily subsidized. They will still pay $1,200 less than tuition paid at top public universities nationally.
Most previous higher education compacts agreed to by governors have been approved by legislatures. So how to explain the caterwauling we heard from several Democratic members of the Legislature all week?
Seeing Assembly members Wilma Chan, Jackie Goldberg, Marco Firebaugh, Dario Frommer and others decry the compact left me amused. Some of these folks have spent inordinate amounts of time dreaming up ways to tax Californians, yet have done little to bring accountability or reform to costly state services such as the UC and CSU systems.
Goldberg railed against the compact as a dark document intended to break promises made to California students, declaring, "No backroom deal by three guys in suits is going to undo that deal."
Do you remember those Democrats who secretly met last year and furtively discussed the possibility of stringing out the California fiscal crisis in order to persuade fed-up citizens to welcome new taxes? The scheming by those Assembly Democrats, whom I call "The Squawkbox Seven," was overheard throughout the Capitol because they didn't realize an intercom was turned on, broadcasting their discussion into hundreds of offices.
When you hear Goldberg harumph about meetings in back rooms, it's worth noting that she dreamed up and ran the meeting of the Squawkbox Seven.
On May 11, Goldberg demanded to know how Schwarzenegger's plan to limit college-fee increases to an average of 10 percent per year helps families whose incomes don't go up.
It's not complicated. If families know annual increases will be stable and can't skyrocket, they can plan ahead, save and belt-tighten. That's how families, even of limited means, approach a budget.
But for years now, planning ahead and behaving like grown-ups has not been a working concept in Sacramento. This, I think, is really what Schwarzenegger is up against as he wades into his first budget battle. Somehow, the governor has to persuade dozens of legislators, who are accustomed to wallowing in illogic, to use common sense.
As Schwarzenegger is sure to learn, even if you've got the leaders of two of the nation's top university systems backing you, as does the governor, common sense remains a priceless ability that cannot be taught.
Jill Stewart, a print, radio and television commentator on California politics, can be reached at www.jillstewart.net.
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