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A bad funding fix

ENDORSEMENTS 2008: Prop. 92 is the wrong way to find more money for community colleges.

January 07, 2008

Proposition 92 promises California's community colleges a stable funding source while lowering student fees. What could be wrong with that?

A lot. Community colleges certainly need more money, but Proposition 92 would lock the state into spending hundreds of millions of additional dollars that it doesn't have. Lawmakers would have no choice but to rob other higher education programs to meet the new spending commitment. This initiative represents the worst form of ballot-box budgeting, and voters should reject it.

Spending mandates like this one have become a recurring nightmare for California. It must have sounded like a good idea to voters in 1988 to require close to half of every state budget to go to K-14 education, including community colleges. But that measure -- Proposition 98, if you're keeping track -- has calcified 20 years' worth of budgets. Instead of giving voters a final say in education spending, it empowered groups with vested interests. The California Teachers Assn., for example, dictated how billions of dollars in taxpayer funds are to be spent over several budget years as a condition of dropping its lawsuit over education spending.

Backers of this new measure now want to seize a portion of the education pot for community colleges. They explain that young adults -- the colleges' traditional student base -- make up a growing segment of California's population. But if the dollars should follow the population bulge year to year, lawmakers must have more spending flexibility, not less. It would be foolhardy to mandate spending for decades into the future based on today's rapidly shifting demographics.

The state today faces a $14.5-billion shortfall that will prevent full funding of education in the coming year, but instead of providing relief, Proposition 92 squeezes the budget at both ends. It requires $300 million in new spending over each of the next three years but removes from the budget, in the form of student fee cuts, $71 million.

Fee cuts sound nice, but students who can't afford the current fees aren't required to pay them. In one recent year, 52% of community college students got fee waivers. Those who do pay enjoy the lowest community college fees in the nation at $20 a unit; Proposition 92 would cut them to $15. Students who avoid community colleges because of cost do so because they can't afford housing and books, not because of tuition. Meanwhile, federal funds to cover a variety of costs sit unused because the colleges do such a poor job of directing students to the aid.

Community colleges are the workhorses of California's education system, making up for high schools that fail to educate, preparing students for four-year colleges, training adults for careers, providing second and in many cases first chances at an education. They do need help, but they don't need Proposition 92. Vote no.

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