Dear Gov. Brown,
Congratulations. Being governor of one of the largest and the most populated states in the nation, one with a rich history of leading the way in countless policy issues, is no easy task. Although we seem to have survived the worst of the recession, neither economists nor everyday Californians believe we’re out of the woods yet.
Since the 1980s, Sacramento has distanced itself from the promises made to the people of California in the Master Plan for Higher Education, and tuition in higher education has increased dramatically. Despite what one might expect from public schools, the burden of financing the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges has fallen more and more on students and their families. In academic year 2011-12, students’ tuition made up 13 percent of the university’s operating budget, exceeding state funding — 11 percent — for the first time. This increasing pressure has forced students to take on more and more loans, the federal total of which exceeded $1 trillion last fall.
While recognizing the need to move California toward recovery and avoid the “boom and bust” cycle that has marked our state’s history, our current trend toward divestment from public education will guarantee our recovery is short lived. Public education has long been argued to be the uplifting tool for people in the United States to achieve upward mobility and close the gaps in inequality. And yet, with a federal average of $29,400 in student loan debt, present funding of higher education is creating a perfect storm — one that will oversee an entire generation shackled to debt.
This weight hinders our ability to wield purchasing power as consumers in the market and our capacity to secure home and auto loans or start small businesses, ultimately slowing our economic recovery. There are, however, public policy solutions for higher education that will require a strong champion to protect and expand the health of the middle class: namely, Proposition 13 reform, repealing Proposition 209, reforming the UC Regents and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
First, from the University of California Student Association to The Daily Californian itself, students have called for the reform of Prop. 13, which restricts fair tax assessment of commercial property, short-changing the state from the revenue we desperately need. While Proposition 30 was a Band-Aid solution for California’s education system, reforming Prop. 13 via a split-roll tax would bring an estimated minimum of at least $4 billion in additional revenue, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Prop. 13 defined Gov. Brown’s first term; reforming Prop. 13 would bring us full circle and restore a truly golden California.
In addition to decreased funding, we have also seen a decrease in diversity on UC campuses since Prop. 209. It is important to recognize that our campuses have a crisis of diversity, especially at the flagship campus. In 2013, the black community at UC Berkeley constituted only 3.45 percent of the entire student body, and Hispanics a mere 11.2 percent. When looking at California’s demographics, we see that blacks make up 6.6 percent of the state’s population, and Hispanics make up 38.4 percent of the state’s population. It is clear that our universities are not reflective of the state’s population. Although efforts have been made to address this problem — most recently with SCA 5 — gubernatorial leadership is needed to reverse higher education’s diversity crisis and the campus-climate issues Prop. 209 has created.
Third, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s overcrowded prisons constitute a “cruel and unusual punishment” — and are disproportionately overcrowded with black and Hispanic men. But the criminalization of youth of color starts with harsher discipline and higher suspension rates in K-12 schools. Although the school-to-prison pipeline is in its first steps to being addressed through Proposition 47 — which will reclassify nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors and redirect funds back into K-12 education and victim services — the larger issue is undoubtedly among the most difficult to tackle both in policy and in cultural practice. But it is also among the most needed if Californians are serious about ending racial inequality and abolishing the prison-industrial complex.
Finally, the governance of the UC system must be substantially overhauled. The need to democratize the UC Regents is self evident when a variety of issues arise, from tuition increases to funding critical initiatives such as ending sexual assault to programs that have a lasting and enriching impact on the lives of students such as the Lick Observatory and the Gill Tract Farm. Time and time again, students — and recently the Legislature — have found themselves at odds with a board whose decisions on resource allocation have consistently demonstrated that the regents are out of touch with the experiences and struggles of everyday Californians.
While the membership of the regents is constitutionally required to reflect the state’s diversity, only four of the 15 gubernatorially appointed regents are women, and four are people of color, with no representation from California’s Asian and Pacific Islander populations; only four attended a UC campus as a student. To move forward on the issues that are important to students, the manner of appointment and composition of the regents must be democratized. By preserving a right for student representatives to participate in policy decisions in key subject areas, students can guarantee their perspective in matters impacting the UC system.
Gov. Brown, you must be a fearless champion for higher education if you want to change the course of California history; given that this will be your final term as governor of California, there is no electoral reason to hold back. In serving an unprecedented fourth term as governor, you bring a level of savvy to California politics that would be difficult to match. It is time to use your political capital to the fullest for the good of students saddled with debt, for children who hope to access higher education and for equality in the state of California.
Ismael Contreras is the political director of Cal Berkeley Democrats. Kevin Sabo is a member of the Cal Berkeley Democrats and the UCSA Board chair. Mon-Shane Chou is the president of Cal Berkeley Democrats.