American Decline Is Crushing the Middle Class
LOS ANGELES — By chance, the three things that landed in my inbox — that’s a polite euphemism for “pile” — on Tuesday were these:The Hill, one of Washington’s all-politics-all-the-time journals, with a headline that read: “Most Voters Say the U.S. Is in Decline.”Under that was Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book, “That Used to Be Us — How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented.”And there was a tear sheet from the Los Angeles Times that hit me especially hard. The headline: “Access to Community Colleges May Be Rationed: After years of cuts, the state’s open-door system must change, a task force suggests.”The smaller headline on the Hill piece was: “The Hill Poll shows that the American spirit has been sapped. An overwhelming number of voters believe the current troubles presage a longer, deeper fall.” The “overwhelming number” was 69 percent, including an astounding number of Republicans, 90 percent, thinking we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. Only 21 percent of all respondents think the lives of their children will be better than their own.Friedman and Mandelbaum, two of the smarter guys around Washington, have a landslide of data and insight about decline in their book, but I was drawn to a short section on the California university system, once the crown jewel of American public education — and, as the authors say, the driving force behind the state’s prosperity. Think research universities like Berkeley and UCLA, where I taught in the 1990s, when some of the best professors on campus were being offered buyouts and moved on to other universities.Tuition was free at the University of California, the California State university system (originally teacher’s colleges), and below that, the community colleges. All that has changed since referendums in the late 1970s essentially froze property taxes and required super majorities of the Legislature to raise any other revenues. K-12 education imploded; California went from the best neighborhood public schools to the worst in the country. The universities, state colleges and community colleges began to replace tuition with all sorts of fees that amounted to the same thing.What worries me and will continue to plague California is the decline of the 112 two-year, open-enrollment community colleges, with their 2.9 million students and more than 90,000 employees. It is the largest education system in the world, and students who do well, almost always working at outside jobs, would win admission to the four-year colleges and universities. Every kid in the state had a shot, a chance and a second chance.
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