Higher education accountability bill passes through state Senate committee

A bill that requires California to establish a system for reporting how its higher education institutions are meeting educational and economic  goals passed through the state Senate Education Committee last week.

Assembly Bill 2 — introduced by state Assemblymember Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge — was passed by the committee on June 22 by an 8 to 1 margin.  The  bill requires the state to establish an “accountability framework” that provides a biennial assessment of the collective progress of the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges systems.

“We owe it to our students to have valid data that gives them confidence in our world class colleges and universities,” Portantino said in a statement.

The bill primarily aims to consolidate existing accountability systems into a cohesive framework, according to Wendy Gordon, a spokesperson for Portantino.

“The new system is a ‘report card’ that creates uniform comparison,” she said. “All the universities (currently) do their own accountability studies, but this bill would build a common language so that it’s not like comparing apples and oranges.”

A June 17 letter written to the bill’s principal co-author — state Senator Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach — from the UC Office of the President offered the UC’s support for the bill if certain amendments were made.

Among the issues raised in the letter were concerns that the bill’s framework is too complex and does not allow higher education officials sufficient interaction with legislators, according to Nadia Leal-Carrillo, the office’s legislative director.

“What we’ve been trying to engage the author and the other (higher education) segments in is a discussion about who the key players are that should be involved and how we can do that with the existing processes already in state law,” she said.

Another one of the UC’s concerns is the potential elimination of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the primary data collection agency in the bill’s new framework.

Leal-Carrillo said that if the commission were eliminated — as was proposed in Gov. Jerry Brown’s May budget revision — and the bill maintained its current wording, additional responsibilities would put undue financial strain on higher education institutions already slated for cuts.

Despite the university’s concerns, documents provided by Portantino’s office claim that costs to the university segments, the commission and the Legislative Analyst’s Office — which serves an advisory role as part of the bill — would be absorbable.

Previous iterations of similar bills submitted in 2004 and 2008 by other state lawmakers were vetoed by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger because of a perceived lack of “tangible gains in student outcomes and operational efficiencies,” according to one of Schwarzenegger’s veto messages.

Portantino previously submitted a nearly identical bill that passed through the state Senate Education Committee  in July 2009 before the bill was held under submission in the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

Next week, Lowenthal and Portantino will meet with the three higher education segments to discuss final details of the bill.