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Legislators say state funding may even be cut at kindergarten-through-junior-college levels, despite Schwarzenegger's pledge to uphold a ballot proposition aimed at protecting these schools from cuts.
As the government reduces school funding, the number of students who are desperate to gain new skills in a down economy is growing.
"We have the largest graduating (high school) class in the history of the state, and we don't have room for them. We don't have the money," says Elihu Harris, chancellor of the Oakland-area Peralta Community College District. "We're concentrating on making sure lights are on, that utilities, garbage, and recycling are taken care of."
Even at the University of California, the favored child of the state's school system, student bodies are feeling the effects of fee hikes and program cuts enacted in the previous two years.
"The assumption is, if you're needy enough, you can get aid; if you're wealthy, you can go as well. But it doesn't even pan out like that anymore," says Liz Geyer, executive director of the University of California Student Association. Even qualified UC doctoral candidates, the presumed elite of the elite, are having a difficult time finding a place, Geyer says. Rather than take on graduate students, professors are taking on post-doctoral students -- who don't require the same level of instruction, and are therefore cheaper to train, as research assistants. The result is fewer opportunities for graduate students.
"In some labs, you'll see six post-docs and one graduate student," Geyer says.
At the 409,000-student California State University system, the picture is even worse. S.F. State students recently voted themselves a fee increase to preserve hundreds of classes scheduled for cancellation, and to head off a proposed elimination of the school's career center.
Students in kindergarten through junior college are presumably protected under Schwarzenegger's plan to comply with Proposition 98, a 1988 initiative that is meant to shield budgets for primary and secondary education from the effects of economic down cycles. But it's clear that some Democrats are now willing to look at cuts in K-through-JC to preserve some vital social services funded by the state.
"We're putting our chips in with the governor in hopes that he can hold the line from deeper cuts that could come from the right and left," said Bob Blattner, a lobbyist for School Services of California, whose clients include school districts around the state. "You've got a lot of people on the right who love education, but would sacrifice us rather than raise taxes. You've got a lot of people on the left who love education, but would rather sacrifice us than make the draconian cuts in social programs. And the governor is the one who loves education above all else."
Perhaps. But state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), who leads that body's Education Committee, said schools shouldn't find solace in the idea that the governor might cut life-or-death medical services in the name of protecting schools. "The governor says there will be no new taxes. The Republicans say there will be no new taxes. Do I think education is a life-and-death issue? Yes," Goldberg says. "But it's slow death. Health cuts are fast death. If you don't get HIV medications, you're going to die."
I asked Carole Migden, chairwoman of the California Board of Equalization, a tax agency, whether offshoring executives have been ringing her up, volunteering to help fund ways to raise California corporate taxes to fund education.
They're not, Migden says, but she's been thinking about ways to get around this contradiction.
"Jobs are being outsourced. However, our colleges aren't educating community college students in the most efficacious and results-driven way," Migden says. "I'd like to target a couple of schools in the community college system and get San Francisco-based corporate sponsorship. I don't know how to get the public funding system to budge. Not when you have a low-tax pledge, when Democrats are reticent about promoting taxes."
Junior colleges aren't the type of schools people seem to have in mind when they talk about America's global competitiveness. Instead, articles about offshoring often include statistics about the vast number of engineering graduates turned out by universities in India.
But even if South Asia does usurp thousands of software jobs, India's not going to become a dominant economic power by turning all its best and brightest into engineers. America's greatest strength has always been its economic diversity and flexibility, and the resulting ability to anticipate and develop the next big thing. This is a country where a liberal-arts college dropout can hire a bunch of fallen architects and illustrators -- and create Pixar. California is where the seemingly hapless Ask.com of Emeryville can stumble from failure to failure -- and then somehow molt, and turn into an incipient leader in the world of search engines, one of many industries-in-progress made in the USA.
California is a land of second chances. Up to now, public schools, including community colleges, have been a cornerstone of this strength. Unlike more socially rigid places, California has been able to draw upon the talents of reformed burnouts, monolingual immigrant peasants, widowed housewives, 24-year-olds just getting over their listlessness, and millions of others whose most promising years didn't happen to come immediately after high school graduation.