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Posted on Oct 2, 2012
PhoTones_TAKUMA (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Andy Kroll, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Yet not until California’s trust-busting Progressive politicians claimed power in the early 1900s did the populist promise of the state’s higher education system begin to take shape. The Progressives saw higher education as a path to the middle class—and with an educated middle class they were convinced they could loosen the stranglehold corporate powers like the Southern Pacific Railroad had on the state. “The university was their Progressive dream come true,” historian Kevin Starr has written.

State support for the University of California soared from a few hundred thousand dollars in 1900 to more than $3 million by 1920. As future UC president Clark Kerr would write, “The campus is no longer on the hill with the aristocracy but in the valley with the people.”

Down in that valley, more and more people wanted an education. New campuses sprouted statewide before World War II, and then in its wake were flooded with returning GIs and former war workers. Governor Earl Warren used those colleges and universities as “shock absorbers” when the state’s wartime economy-on-steroids slowed. He put his money on a novel concept: California would educate its way out of any post-war slump.

The education system exploded in the 1940s and 1950s. Students poured into classrooms. But not until Kerr became president did he and other education leaders attempt to create a systemic blueprint for growth with what was called the “California Master Plan for Higher Education.” Under this plan, the brightest students were to attend a flagship UC school, the next-smartest group would go to a Cal State school, and the remainder would start at a two-year community college with an eye toward transferring to a four-year college.

Time magazine even put Kerr on its cover, bestowing on him the title of “master planner.” (Kerr was a complicated figure. He later clashed with UC-Berkeley’s famed Free Speech Movement, yet FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed he was too close to campus activists and secretly pushed for his ouster. The college’s board of regents unceremoniously fired him in 1967.)

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This was the heyday of California higher education. Enrollment grew by 300% between 1930 and 1960, and the state’s share of college funding kept pace. But that all started to change on June 6, 1978, when California voters approved Proposition 13, a ballot measure that limited property tax assessments. More importantly, it handcuffed state lawmakers by requiring a two-thirds supermajority any time they wanted to increase taxes, and made a two-thirds vote among citizens necessary to raise local taxes. Prop. 13 kicked off California’s “tax revolt” of the 1970s and 1980s, a slew of ballot measures that choked off revenue for state and local governments and left lawmakers scrambling to fill the gap. It was the beginning of the demise of public higher education in California.

“We’re Just Getting Chainsawed”

Journalist Peter Schrag describes what followed as the “Mississippification” of California. Hot with the fever of an anti-tax, small-government movement, Californians began the long, slow burn-down of the state’s higher education system. As Jeff Bleich, a former Cal State trustee and former counsel to President Obama, put it in 2009, California higher education “is being starved to death by a public that thinks any government service—even public education—is not worth paying for. And by political leaders who do not lead but instead give in to our worst, shortsighted instincts.”

The numbers tell the story. In 2011, public colleges and universities received 13% less in state money than they had in 1980 (when adjusted for inflation).  In 1980, 15% of the state budget had gone to higher education; by 2011, that number had dropped to 9%. Between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 state budgets, lawmakers sliced away another $1.5 billion in funding, the largest such reduction in any high-population state in the country.

Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the office of University of California president Mark Yudof, couldn’t contain her dismay when reacting to recent cuts. “Here we have the world’s best public university system, and we’re just getting chainsawed,” she told the Daily Californian. “Public education is dying, and perhaps we are reaching a tipping point.”

According to a 2010 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, young adults in California are less likely to graduate from college than their parents. Among the 20 most populous states, California ranked 18th in 2010 in its rate of students going straight from high school to college; factor in all states and California ranked 40th. According to the institute, this crumbling bridge between high school and college means California could face a shortfall of a million skilled workers by 2025.


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