By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist
The Assembly Higher Education Committee unanimously endorsed Assembly Bill 1936 this month, which would seem to bode well for its enactment.
It would create an Office of Higher Education Performance and Accountability to plan how California is to meet its ever-rising demand for post-high school education and coordinate the state’s three college and university systems.
However, if history is any guide, AB 1936 is doomed. At least seven other bills with similar purposes have either died in the Legislature or been vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in recent years, including two others by AB 1936’s author, Assemblyman Evan Low, a Campbell Democrat.
The demise of those bills and the likely death of AB 1936 testify to the difficulty California’s politicians have in dealing with one of the state’s thorniest issues.
Every bit of data tells us that California faces a potential crisis because it is failing to generate enough college-educated workers to replace retiring baby boomers and fill the demands of an increasingly sophisticated economy.
That failure underscores the irrelevance of the state’s nearly 60-year-old “master plan” for higher education, which envisioned seamless, low-cost access to community colleges, the state university system and the University of California.
Costs, particularly for tuition at the four-year schools, have skyrocketed as the state’s financial support has declined. Demand for classes leading to graduation has outstripped supply. And the three systems that were supposed to be models of cooperation have become fiercely competitive for money and academic turf control.
For instance, the University of California has stoutly resisted efforts by the California State University System to award doctorate degrees, while the CSU has displayed a similar attitude when community colleges sought permission to award baccalaureate degrees. Officials of the three systems, and their academic unions, constantly snipe at each other in political arenas, using the master plan as a shield to ward off rivals and critics.
For decades, the state had a California Postsecondary Education Commission that was supposed to oversee what was happening, conduct policy analyses and make recommendations. But its functions were predicated on the master plan’s principles, which eroded with time, and the three college systems routinely ignored its recommendations.
When, for instance, the University of California’s Irvine campus sought to establish a law school, CPEC rightfully concluded in 2007 that the state didn’t need another attorney generator. UC-Irvine and UC’s Board of Regents ignored CPEC and opened the law school anyway.
In 2011, Brown vetoed CPEC’s state financing, which put it out of business even though it remains in state law. He acknowledged the need for better higher education planning and suggested that the “stakeholders” work things out.
Four years later, in vetoing one of the predecessors to AB 1936, he again acknowledged the need, but added, “I am not convinced we need a new office…to get the job done.”
Brown is right about that. Rather than reviving CPEC with a new name, the Capitol’s politicians should be admitting that the master plan is obsolete and writing a new version that deals with 21st century realities rather than mid-20th century suppositions.
However, Brown has been unwilling to take on the task he says is needed, even though his father, former Gov. Pat Brown, helped give birth to the original master plan. Higher education reform thus joins the list of difficult, unsexy but vital issues that Brown says need attention, but that he’s left untouched, such as reforming the state’s outdated and dangerously imbalanced tax system and overhauling the cumbersome California Environmental Quality Act.
Therefore, the higher education conundrum will fall to the next governor, who will either rise to the occasion or continue Brown’s legacy of neglect.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary
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