As with the Presidential contest, the California elections offer the choice between continuing the dispiriting new normal and an accelerated descent into a new Gilded Age of publicly supported private inequality. But, in California, the significant action is in the propositions: specifically Propositions 30 and 32.
Proposition 30--the compromise between Governor Brown, students, and unions--raises money for education. It increases the marginal rate on income over $250,000 (for a single filer) for 7 years: in other words, rates on all income below $250,000 will remain at the present rate, on the $50,000 between $250,000 to $300,000 will rise 1%, on the $200,000 between 300,000 and $500,000 will go up an additional 1%, and the income over $500,000 will go up another 1%. (2) It also raises the sales and use tax by 1/4 cent for 4 years. (1) The expectation is that Proposition 30 will generate on average an additional 6 Billion dollars of additional annual revenue, 89% of which would go to K-12 and 11% to the Community Colleges. (3-4)
For UC and CSU, then, Prop 30 does not provide additional funds. What its passage would do is prevent devastating additional cuts. The way the state budget was written, if Prop 30 fails, both UC and CSU will suffer 250 Million dollar cuts each, and the Community Colleges will be cut over $300 Million. If it fails, tuition will sky rocket, access will be reduced again, and core programs will be gnawed even further to the bone while staff would again be pared. To give you some sense of the impact of these cuts, Higher Education already receives approximately 800 Million dollars less from the state general fund than in did in the middle of the last decade. The trigger cuts would double that deficit.
Prop 32, while not directly related to higher education, has powerful implications for the future of higher ed in the state. Prop 32 offers us Citizens United on steroids. Prop 32 forbids unions and corporations from using payroll deductions to finance political contributions. Since corporations don't use payroll deductions in the first place, the Proposition's claim to be an effort to reform political funding is a complete sham; its only purpose is to ensure that unions can no longer have an effective voice in politics. The end result: corporate interests and the plutocracy would have no effective opponents in the political realm. Defeat it and we preserve the ability of unions to engage in political activism. If it passes we enter plutocratic free-fall.
If Proposition 30 fails and Proposition 32 succeeds, public higher education in California, indeed public investment in California, faces a disaster. If it passes, we will have dodged a boulder.
But if the election is able to preserve something like the status quo, then what? One thing we will need to do is develop ways to increase public investment in higher education. As Chris has pointed out on many occasions, the present financial strategies on offer from UCOP or the proponents of privatization will not make up for the decline in state funding. Should Prop 30 pass it may indicate that the public is beginning to rethink its commitment to funding public education with tax revenue. Certainly, some anti-tax and corporate groups are worried about that prospect. We will also need to raise new questions about the relationships between different parts of the University Systems, between the different systems, and about the priorities within those systems.
In that process of trying to revitalize higher education there will be little help from Jerry Brown. In late September, the LA Times published an unedited transcript of an interview with Jerry Brown. The transcript is, to be honest, quite strange. It leaves in misspellings of words and dubious transcriptions of words Brown did use. Even more striking, it does not include questions, a choice that makes Brown seem especially rambling and disconnected. Still, the interview does reveal some striking confusions in Brown's thinking about higher education.
As Bob Samuels has pointed out in a commentary on Brown's interview: one overriding image left from the interview is that of a politician overwhelmed by the complexities of politics. In what is almost an (unconscious) parody of those who keep insisting that Obama is playing ten-dimensional chess, Brown is so aware of moves and counter-moves that he ends up unable to make any significant changes for fear of opposition.
But there is something even deeper: The incoherence of Jerry Brown. Brown appears disconnected not only from what actually goes on in higher education but even from the implications of what his policies have done to higher education. On the one hand, Brown recognizes that higher ed has to be more than the production of workers:
And people talk about especially at Cal State – it’s workforce.We’re creating people for the workforce. In other words, you’re a cog and I’m putting you in a machine and the machine’s going to run better because we have better cogs.But having made that promising introduction he goes elsewhere:
Well, there’s idea that the university is not about training, it’s about opening your mind. That’s what he (he is referring to Page Smith here) talks about. (my insertion)
If you want to do something that you know is good but is different, the last place you’re going to get it done is UC. The second to last place you’re going to get it done is Cal State. And the place more likely would be the community colleges, because they’re more flexible.Brown apparently has written off the possibility of trying to change either UC or CSU in ways that would enable them to become more than simply producers of interchangeable workers. But even more strikingly is his suggestion that change could come from the CCs. I say strikingly because Brown has been striving incessantly to cut resources for community colleges since he took office, claiming that they receive too much money for student enrollment. Moreover, he has supported the recent changes in Community College policy that will make it harder for students to explore new possibilities.
How this might be changed? Don't ask Brown:
And what would be the role of community colleges, what would be the role of state colleges? Could they all work and interact? OK, I can’t figure all that out. I can’t think of everything. We’ve got water, we’ve got pensions, we’ve got timber tax. We’ve got a lot of stuff flying around.He wants changes in higher education; but he has written off the possibility of change in higher education institutions.
The November election then is genuinely important. It will not solve any of the state's problems. But if offers a choice between maintaining some space for response and rethinking on the one hand, and a body-blow to the education of the young and the political power of workers on the other. It will not stop the growing inequities and inequalities within the State. But it will protect tools for opposing them. If Proposition 30 passes and Proposition 32 is defeated it will provide an opening. Then the debate over the reconstruction of higher education by those actively involved in it--and not just those who mange it--will need to begin anew.