State identity still on the line

Passage begins reinvestment in state's smartest investment

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.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]

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.

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  • Tony M

    How smart is “investing” in people who aren’t even qualified college material, but are socially promoted through the public schools then given preferential admission to college to give some false appearance of “diversity”? How smart is “investing” in some racial, gender or ethnic studies program where student graduate with no marketable job skills but with a chip on their shoulder and a mountain of debt? How smart is it to keep raising taxes to the point where this state drives off more and more of the same high-paying jobs that pay those same taxes? For many students, their only prospects of ever getting ahead will involve accepting jobs in Arizona, Texas, Utah or some other state where the unemployment rate and the cost of living are lower than here. You people who voted for Prop 30 in the hopes that it would provide “investment” in California’s education clearly made decisions based more on emotion than logic or common sense.

  • Tony M

    I will believe that the politicians and bureaucrats are serious about dealing with UC’s financial crisis when they stop promoting the idea that illegal aliens have the right to attend college at the taxpayer’s expense. Otherwise, screw them all, including those students stupid enough to support the Dream Act, Affirmative Action, and every other program designed to divert money from qualified citizen students to the unqualified, unworthy, and undeserving.

  • Calipenguin

    I don’t think Jonathan Stein’s analysis is quite correct. Maybe many voters wanted to re-invest in California’s education system. However, Prop 30 assured the voters that most of the funding would come from other people. Thus, instead of forging a new California identity of shared sacrifice for public education, Prop 30 merely starts a class war in which the perennially underfunded California increases ever more taxes on the “wealthy”. 2012 is ending on a bad note since California’s tax revenue is already $400 million below projections (even taking Prop 30 into account) and the rich folks just lost a heap of money in the last two days on the stock market.

  • I_h8_disqus

    Jonathan sounds just like a politician who spins all kinds of falsehoods from actual events. While the voters of California passed Prop. 30, the actual people controlling the purse strings (the legislature) have not shown that they support the UC, and there is no reason to think the passage of Prop. 30 will change their minds about education spending. We should also remember that Prop. 30 wasn’t about the UC. Voters outside of the UC had no idea that the passage of the proposition would affect the UC. The proposition was supposed to help K-12 and community colleges, and that is what the voters were supporting. The passage of the proposition with 54% of the vote also shows the legislature that there wasn’t overwhelmingly strong support for education. Especially, when they break down the votes and see that 73% of voters in Alameda county voted for the proposition. So they see that their extortion of the UC resulted in the two groups of UC students voting for the proposition, but not a lot of support from other voters.
    There isn’t a change in the mindset of anyone with influence. That is why we have to step up lobbying efforts with the legislature so that we actually change the mindset of the people who control the money.

    • Sorry. You’re out of touch, because 54% is actually a pretty good margin of victory.

      • I_h8_disqus

        The legislature has a super majority now. That tells them that Californians support the Democratic legislature’s vision on education, which is a vision that has cut education in the state in favor of other programs. Prop. 30 getting 4% more than a simple majority doesn’t impress them. You are out of touch if you think barely winning a simple majority will influence the legislature to spend money on education. It is time to stop thinking that everything is going to be wonderful for Cal. There are going to be hundreds of groups pushing for more funding for various social programs, and they will push hard to get money that we would like to have go towards education. People who support the UC will need to lobby hard to get Cal funded.

        • Of course, we have to keep fighting. The next thing we have to do in order to preserve the UC system as a public university system is to convince Gov. Brown to *not* re-appoint Richard Blum to another term on the UC Board of Regents in 2014.