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Students ready to fight bill that would create higher-fee classes

Assemblyman's proposal to allow extension programs for community colleges is similar to the controversial two-tier system that Santa Monica College had sought.

April 20, 2013|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) says his proposal for community colleges is "a modest attempt that is voluntary on the part of students and community colleges."
Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) says his proposal for community… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

Students and faculty are gearing up for a fight to oppose legislation that would allow California community colleges to charge more for high-demand courses during summer and winter sessions.

Colleges would be able to offer extension programs for credit leading to certificates, associate's degrees and for transfer to four-year universities, if enrollment was at capacity the preceding two years.

The bill, AB 955, is similar to a controversial plan attempted by Santa Monica College last summer to offer core education classes such as English, math and history at a cost of about $180 per unit, alongside state-funded courses set by the Legislature at $46 per unit. The school argued that extension courses would give students who couldn't get into regular classes another option to complete their education.

The plan was derided by opponents as a pathway to a two-tier education system favoring those who can pay.

The Santa Monica campus retreated after the community colleges' chancellor's office said the plan violated education codes that prohibit differential fees and after some protesters tried to force entry into a board of trustees meeting and were pepper-sprayed.

The current bill's author, Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), said he revived the idea because colleges are still suffering from severe state funding cuts that have prevented the schools from increasing course offerings and led many of them to drop summer and winter sessions.

Those cuts in turn are hampering military veterans, who must be continuously enrolled to qualify for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits such as housing stipends.

Under Williams' plan, contract courses would not supplant state-funded classes. There is also precedent in California State University's extended and continuing education degree programs, which offer classes for the full cost of instruction, he said.

"Our intent is to help students be able to get classes," said Williams. "Everyone advocates for access, but I'm disappointed that no one supports any ideas. This is a modest attempt that is voluntary on the part of students and community colleges. Opponents of the bill should not be able to make decisions for every community college student in the state."

Williams cited a March Public Policy Institute of California report that found that enrollment in the state's 112 community colleges had plunged to a 20-year low, with more than 500,000 students turned away since 2008 and another 500,000 students on waiting lists in fall 2012.

The report suggested a number of remedies, including charging higher fees for those who can pay. Under Williams' legislation, fees would approximate those for nonresidents at about $200 per unit. The legislation is supported by several college districts and some employee unions and nonprofits.

The bill passed the Assembly's higher-education committee, chaired by Williams, on a 10-2 vote last week and advanced to the committee on appropriations. A spokesman for Santa Monica College said the school has taken no position on the bill.

Eloy Oakley, president of Long Beach City College, which is a sponsor, said the proposed legislation addresses many of the concerns expressed about the Santa Monica plan and would help schools, such as his, that have long waiting lists.

His campus cut its winter session and now offers only a fraction of summer courses that were available four years ago.

"I fully understand the concern on the other side of the argument that we're raising fees, but in this college president's opinion, we're doing this in a way that's responsible, allows for a broad base of students to access classes and for discounted fees for low-income students," Oakley said. "It addresses a specific issue at a specific point in time."

But others disagree and said the proposed legislation is especially wrong-footed following the passage of Proposition 30, which temporarily raises some taxes to fund education, and Gov. Jerry Brown's 2013-14 budget proposal to increase funding for higher education.

A spokesman for Brice Harris, community colleges chancellor, said charging students different fees would compromise open access.

Currently, community college Board of Governors fee waivers and Cal Grants — financial aid depended on by many low-income students — do not cover extension programs, said Jonathan Lightman, executive directors of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.

Lightman said his organization supports veterans services, but he noted that that group already receives priority registration.

"The idea of moving to a two-tier system is anathema to us even in leaner years," said Lightman. "Now that we're moving toward restoration of funding, it doesn't make any sense, and it's frankly divisive and very unfortunate."

Harrison Wills, the former president of the Santa Monica College student government who was criticized by the administration for his part in the student protests, said such legislation would violate what should be a public trust.

The public-policy major is writing a resolution for students statewide to oppose the bill. He said students are organizing protests and outreach efforts to legislators and the public.

"I agree we have a revenue problem, but the way to generate money is not on the backs of those who can least afford it," said Wills, 28.

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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