State identity still on the line

Passage begins reinvestment in state's smartest investment

dailycal@dailycal.org_20121108_173546
Ellen Zeng/Staff

California’s identity was at stake on Nov. 6. Proposition 30, which increased the state sales tax slightly and increased income taxes on the wealthy, was only technically about taxes. In reality, it was about whether California wants to be the sort of state that makes big public investments that lead the nation and pay dividends for future generations or if it wants to be the sort of state that keeps taxes low, keeps public services minimal and increasingly lets the private market govern public goods.

For the University of California, the choice was stark. Did California want to be the state that, 50 years ago, had both the ambition to envision the Master Plan and the willingness of sacrifice required to execute it? Or did we want to be the state that destroyed the greatest system of public universities the world has ever known after building it with billions in taxpayer dollars over many decades? Prop. 30 was an inflection point. It was to be either the beginning of reinvestment in public higher education in California or the beginning of the end.

What makes me love Californians is that we seemed to know this merely by feel. The messaging around Prop. 30 never made clear that if it failed, it would give state government license to continue the defunding of the university and that the university would likely be a public-private hybrid, or even an outright private school, by the end of the decade. Barely any UC students understood the stakes in these terms; certainly the mass majority of voters did not. And yet, California made a choice to stand by its universities and by its students. As Election Day approached, I worried that the California of my hopes and dreams was not the California that actually exists in 2012. I was wrong to worry. We remain a state committed to leading this country. And we’re ready to rebuild.

In part, California made this choice because young voters took their future into their own hands. Polling that showed Prop. 30 losing used samples that assumed voters aged 18 to 29 would be just 12 percent of the California electorate on Nov. 6. Pollsters, and the rest of Sacramento, will not so badly underestimate student political power again. On Election Day, voters aged 18 to 29 were fully 28 percent of the electorate, a larger share than in 2008 or 2004. Their support — our support — passed Prop. 30.

This was not done by accident. Students spent months registering tens of thousands of students to vote, utilizing a new law that allowed online voter registration in California for the first time. Some estimates suggest that just under 52,000 UC students were registered to vote in September and October, according to the UC Student Association. And in the weeks before Election Day, students who were committed to truly public higher education and to a broadly prosperous California future, fliered, canvassed, tabled, chalked, and phonebanked their hearts out.

The passage of Prop. 30 should mean certain changes around the university. It should end the sense of inevitability around the high-fee-high-aid tuition model. It should mean substantial financial aid goes to middle class students at campuses other than UC Berkeley. It should mean a moderation of our out-of-state student percentages, which are flying upward at UC Berkeley and UCLA. It should mean increased state contribution to university’s ongoing pension hole. And it should mean that quality, access and affordability are no longer locked   in a zero-sum game, in which protecting one automatically means wounding another.

This is a victory about more than taxes or tuition or the politics of the present moment. UC Berkeley School of Law graduate Antonio Herrera Cuevas likes to quote a Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”Portions of California’s older generations — which benefited from excellent K-12 schools, an affordable Cal State system and an excellent UC system — believed that the next generations of Californians have a right to the same opportunities they received. Those voters, plus California’s students and young voters, formed a generational alliance that planted the trees of California’s future on Nov. 6.

Jonathan Stein is the UC student regent.

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Correction(s):
This op-ed incorrectly referred to Antonio Herrera Cuevas as a philosopher. In fact, he is a 2012 graduate of UC Berkeley School of Law. Also, the op-ed may have implied that the quote attributed to Cuevas was an original statement. In fact, it is a Greek proverb.