The state's vast system of 106 community colleges has been declared a "top priority" by the Assembly's new speaker, Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), a change in status for a system long relegated to the back burners of politics.
Hertzberg is backing the largest proposed budget boost for the colleges in recent years--a $560-million increase in the community colleges' $3.9-billion annual budget. The proposed augmentation is the largest since the economic recession of the early 1990s.
In another sure sign of the system's new political cachet, the speaker even has coined a political catch phrase for the community colleges: He calls them "the classroom of the new economy," highlighting their role in job training.
Assembly members such as Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) and Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno) also are leading the charge to boost support for community colleges. They are encouraged by early signs that Senate leaders want higher education spending to be a priority this year too.
The Assembly's education spending plan is essentially a counteroffer to Gov. Gray Davis' draft budget proposed in January.
The plan calls for $300 million more than the increases that Davis already has proposed for community colleges. It was approved by an Assembly subcommittee earlier this month with bipartisan support--a strong statement of the Assembly's intent going into the most serious stage of budget negotiations in May and June.
After April tax returns are tallied to give a clearer picture of state revenues, the governor will propose a revised budget for legislators to review. The Legislature is slated to send a final budget bill to Davis by June 15.
For community college advocates, the new attention requires some adjustments. Despite the system's staggering 1.5 million students, community colleges have tended to be outshone in political discussion by primary and secondary schools and by universities. Boosters have long referred to them as educational stepchildren.
Now, though, they are being forced to alter their underprivileged posture.
"We just haven't been a politically sexy issue," said Patrick McCallum, the lobbyist for the Los Angeles Community College District.
One reason is that the state's community colleges have never quite shed their image of being low-level trade schools, said Claremont Graduate University political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.
They can't boast of prestige, headline-making research or fat endowments like University of California campuses. Nor do they claim many children of the rich and powerful among their students. They can't, like the Cal State University system does, boast of credentialing masses of teachers. People still sometimes call them by their old name, junior colleges, Jeffe noted, adding: "What does that tell you?"
But the colleges also have a lot to recommend them politically. They are popular with voters. A recent poll in Los Angeles found that more adults have some connection with a community college than with a K-12 school. Many legislators, moreover, have a community college in their districts.
Most important this year, Jeffe said, is the opportunity that the colleges offer legislators to make their political mark distinct from Davis', who has strongly identified himself with K-12 school issues.
"It's a way legislators can send a message to the governor that they have priorities too, and he needs to pay attention," Jeffe said. The colleges, she said, "offer a chance to stake out a position on education that's theirs distinctively."
Hertzberg acknowledges as much: "It's a place we can make a statement," he said.
The Assembly plan for new community college funding includes $40 million more than the governor has proposed for growth, $20 million more for economic development programs, and $15 million more for high-cost programs such as nursing. It also calls for additional sums for more counselors to advise students about transferring to four-year colleges, book-buying programs, and the Puente program, which provides mentoring for Latino students.
A separate measure includes an unprecedented boost in Cal Grants--state financial aid for needy students. Students in community colleges would benefit, along with those in universities.
The Assembly plan also contains a major concession to faculty unions, proposing that about $80 million to be used to hire more full-time faculty and increase salaries and benefits for part-timers.
Senate leaders are still in the process of reviewing Davis' draft budget, and are holding hearings on education spending this week. In budget discussions in January, Senate leaders said they wanted to make higher education spending a priority, and would support more money for community colleges, especially if it is used to accommodate growth.
"There is considerable support to try to augment community college funding in the Senate," said Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-Santa Barbara), chairman of the Senate education subcommittee.