An education system as diverse as California Community Colleges — the largest publicly funded system in the United States, if not the world — is going to experience its share of disagreements. Faculty, administrators, trustees, students and classified staff members won’t always see eye to eye with one another. The chancellor and other state employees with general oversight authority might also have different ideas than those who work at the colleges. It would be unrealistic to expect consensus from such a broad group.
Yet a proposal currently in the Legislature has united many of these diverse interests in vocal opposition. That measure, AB 955, would allow community college districts to establish regular course offerings in summer and winter sessions as under an extension program, passing the full cost of instruction on to students. In other words, students with significant financial means could pay up to 400 percent more for classes, entitling them to a level of access denied to others.
Forget about educational democracy; enter pay-to-play, the new toll road for community colleges.
This is not the first time lawmakers have considered this concept. Last session, the Legislature twice rejected similar measures, AB 515 and SB 1550. Each time, legislators were not concerned that the proposal wouldn’t work. Quite the contrary, they were afraid it would succeed too well, creating a future where the California Community Colleges system would serve the financially well-off over everyone else. The middle class and economically disadvantaged — those who depend on community colleges as a means to advance in society — would need to incur deep levels of debt or decline entering into higher education.
In its May 4 editorial, the Sacramento Bee asserted, “Imagine you go to the grocery store and find long lines at the checkout. A clerk approaches and says, ‘You can wait in line, or if you’re willing to pay four times more, we can get you out right away.’ That, in essence, is what Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, is proposing for California’s community colleges in Assembly Bill 955.”
Amazingly, the most compelling argument in support — that districts need AB 955 to increase access to summer sessions — does not stand up. Last month, the chancellor’s office announced a poll of the state’s 112 colleges, noting that 67 percent of respondents said they would offer more courses this summer than last year; 23 percent would provide the same number of courses as they did in the previous year. A mere 10 percent said they planned to decrease summer offerings.
Equitable access to affordable quality higher education is a top priority of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges. That said, following years of budget cuts, access cannot be exclusively restored to those with financial resources. In the words of one of the many students who traveled a great distance to testify in the Capitol against AB 955, “It makes no sense for community colleges to compete with private proprietary institutions by emulating their practices.” Privatization is not the answer; a long-term budget strategy, begun this year by Gov. Brown and state lawmakers, is.
One other significant point: Community college students from across California worked tirelessly last fall to promote Proposition 30, the temporary tax initiative to save state-funded services. Throughout the campaign, students were told this was their only ticket to hold the line on tuition levels. Now that the proposition has passed, these students are expecting access to college courses at a stable fee level; they are certainly not anticipating a two-tier structure where those who can afford an additional 400 percent go to the front of the line.
To his credit, Williams has offered to negotiate amendments to his measure in an effort to address opposition concerns. Unfortunately, this is not an option, because there is no way to “fix” a two-tier proposal; the concept is inherently flawed. Like other public services, the higher education system may have been broke during the recession, but the concept of educational democracy embodied in the California Community Colleges system was never broken. Passage of AB 955 would be the quickest way to break it.
In the words of California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris, “Creating a system of haves and have-nots is no way to educate our state.” Let’s hope the Legislature listens.
Jonathan Lightman is the executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, a 60-year-old professional association with nearly 10,000 members across the state.