State Amendment Is a Good Start for Public Universities

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Correction Appended

In the struggle to secure full funding for public higher education, two very significant events occurred during winter break. First, Gov. Schwarzenegger unveiled his 2010-11 budget, which restores $370 million to the UC system and funds the Cal Grant Program. Second, the governor unveiled a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee that beginning in 2014-15, the UC and CSU systems will receive a minimum 10 percent of state budget funding.

Both proposals deserve the full support of students and members of the Cal community. Both proposals must also be understood as starting points in a long-term political battle. These two critical first steps must be taken to provide the impetus for a broader, more complete and far more robust commitment to an investment in public higher

education. The political fight ahead requires the sustained mobilization of student, educator, alumni, staff and family constituencies directed first to the members of the State Legislature and then to the public.

The 2010-11 budget only partially restores the $813 million which was lost in the 2008-10 budget processes. Thus, the focus of student lobbying attention must be directed to each state senator and assembly member to register support for approving both restoration of previously cut funding and to prevent future cuts to higher education funding during next year's legislative budget negotiations. California faces a 2010-11 budget deficit approaching $20 billion, meaning hard decisions must be made about funding myriad social programs. Higher education, however, should not again be placed on the chopping block.

The proposed partial restoration of funds previously taken from the UC and CSU systems is a positive development but should not be understood as a rollback of the 32 percent fee hikes or as a substitute for full funding of higher education that is vital to take California's economy of the future in a forward-moving direction. The need for an educated workforce to satisfy the demands of California's employers makes the governor's 2010-2011 budget an investment by California taxpayers, not an expense to the public coffers.

Of greater importance to long-term higher education funding is the governor's proposed constitutional amendment. The need for structural change to guarantee minimum levels of support for public higher education is statistically justified by a macro-historical analysis of state budget prioritizing. Since 1967-68, the percentage of UC and CSU budget allocation has dropped from 13.4 percent to 5.9 percent in 2009-10. Had the governor's 10 percent floor proposal been in place for 2009-10, an additional $1.7 billion would have been available this year for UC operations.

Controversial elements of the constitutional amendment are three-fold. Initially, the amendment puts UC and CSU funding in direct competition with state prison spending. The setting of the education floor at 10 percent is unfortunately accompanied by fixing a prison spending ceiling at 7 percent of the general fund. This specific budgeting trade-off raises severe political difficulties by building into the political battle a fight with a formidable lobbying opposition polity-prison and crime control constituencies. The battle also engages opponents of prison privatization since privatizing prisons is the mechanism through which prison spending savings is to occur. Second, the amendment is criticized for removing legislative flexibility in budget building. Finally, the amendment is questioned because the guaranteed educational floor funding level does not require cost-containment and efficiency controls on educational expenditures. Higher education constituencies can help to mitigate the third objection.

These opposition concerns should not prevent the two-thirds legislative approval initially required to place the amendment on November's ballot. Moreover, the floors proposed by the governor must never become ceilings. Plans are underway for students to march on Sacramento in March, but there is no substitute for making individual contact with legislators to petition for funding restoration and placing the constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Similarly, much remains to be gained from continuing to work on the university's operational excellence program. We must drive a series of essential positive votes on funding education with constructive, self-controlled spending discipline. University-wide action, combined with the willingness of higher education constituencies to wisely spend the public's dollars, will justify legislative and popular votes favoring guaranteed, and adequate, funding of public higher education.

Correction: Thursday, January 28, 2010
An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that the 2010-11 budget partially restores $813 million which was lost in the 2009-10 budget process. In fact, $813 million was lost in the 2008-10 budget processes.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Will Smellko is the president of the ASUC. Danielle Haber is external affairs vice president of the ASUC. Reply to [email protected]

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