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Changing the Equation

October 4, 2006
Many of the 2.7 million students at community colleges in California today don't remember Proposition 13. Many weren't born when it passed 28 years ago. Many others didn't live in California or the United States at the time. But Prop 13, which slashed property taxes, has had a huge impact on these students, mostly for the worse.

When California voters passed the measure, community colleges shifted from receiving 80 percent of their support from local districts to receiving 80 percent from the state. Forced to assume control of financing the largest higher education system in the world, the state didn't have time to devise a new funding formula. And so the division of funds from local communities in 1978 -- a seriously unequal system -- has been the basis for community college funding ever since, with considerable bickering and growing resentments.

But a new law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- and officially unveiled on Tuesday -- could change that. The law replaces old funding formulas, creates new mechanisms to deal with speedy changes in enrollment levels, and offers more state support for some non-credit programs that prepare students for either college-level work or jobs.

Perhaps most important, money is being provided to carry out the new bill in a way that involves extra payments, rather than taking money directly from one district to give to another. Districts that will be gaining could see millions more annually, and some much more than that -- money that they say is badly needed.

"This is a huge, huge deal," said Mark Drummond, chancellor of the California Community Colleges. "Twenty years from now, you are going to see big differences in what the colleges can do -- and that's going to be as a result of this law."

Some community college leaders have been pushing for changes along the lines of the law ever since the passage of Prop 13, and legislation moved forward a few times, only to get blocked. Three years of negotiations and a push by Schwarzenegger -- who attended a two-year institution, Santa Monica College -- led to final passage. "We finally made it to the finish line," Drummond said.

The basic problem that was created by the state taking over the financing of community colleges was that the system prior to Prop 13 was so unequal, Drummond said. Different districts had different tax levels and different expectations of their colleges. When California just took over that system, the state -- in which in theory all taxpayers are equal -- was left with "fairly radical unevenness in funding," Drummond said.

The state's average per-student appropriation has in recent years been between $4,000 and $4,100 he said, but some districts were receiving up to $900 more per student than other districts right next door. Drummond noted that similar types of inequities in K-12 systems have been ruled unconstitutional by various state courts. While the community colleges never faced a legal challenge like that, the disparities were "so distorted" that it was hard for districts to cooperate.

The inequities hit students directly, Drummond said, in those places that were behind. "This is about how many books you have in the library, how many computers in the labs," he said. "It was a very uneven pattern and led to great resentment."

The funding formulas prior to the reform have been quite complicated, and one attraction of the new system -- beyond equity -- is that it is much simpler.

Theresa Tena, director of fiscal policy for the Community College League of California, which represents trustees and presidents,  said that the old system "never really worked" and locked in certain patterns. The key to the new system, she said, is that it accepts the premise that the colleges have certain costs based on such factors as the number of students, the number of full-fledged campuses, and the number of centers (facilities not quite at the campus level). The new system is based on these "fixed costs," she said, and will adjust when some college districts' costs go up and down.

"The majority of districts are going to come out ahead," she said.

Beyond the basic change, the legislation signed into law also creates a special mechanism to provide extra funds to districts that are growing rapidly. This is designed to deal with a longstanding complaint that quick shifts in enrollment patterns don't result in rapid enough distribution of state funds.

Another significant change will allow college districts to get much more money for selected non-credit courses. Currently, students in non-credit programs are counted at only 50 percent of the per-student appropriation level. Under the new legislation, that payment can now roughly equal the payment for credit programs, for courses that are built around college preparedness or job training, provided that the courses are designed in a sequence, "not just a one shot thing," Drummond said.

So students who need several remedial courses, or intense English as a second language, or a variety of other courses, will eventually count fully in appropriations formulas. Drummond said that this is of great importance because many of those students would benefit from smaller classes that will now be possible for colleges to offer. "It's most difficult to teach those with the least skills. They need the smaller classes," he said.

Darroch (Rocky) Young, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District, said that the changes being adopted are extremely significant. He anticipates that the base funding change will result in an extra $6 million annually for his district. "This helps to put to rest a lot of the funding disparities that have existed in California," he said.

The district should enjoy another $2 million when the new non-credit course rules are fully in place. Given the role of community colleges in educating adults who haven't received a good education, Young said, this change is overdue. "These courses are central to the mission of community colleges, and there never should have been such a disparity," Young said. "This is fundamental skill development for those who didn't get it in K-12, and who need more to succeed."

 

 

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