In California, the final say on the perennial issue of education funding often rests at the ballot box.
That tradition continues in February on Super Tuesday, when state residents will consider a ballot measure intended to lower student fees and boost funding to the state's enormous community college system, which enrolls some 2.5 million students. And even though Proposition 92 is backed by the Community College League of California, a group representing administrators across the state, the bill has some within the system worried over whether it may end up capping fees without ensuring a new stream of revenue.
The initiative, the Community College Governance, Funding Stabilization, and Student Fee Reduction Act, would set student fees at $15 per credit unit per semester (down from $20) and peg future increases to the cost of living. Since Proposition 98 passed in 1988, the state is required under its constitution to allocate 40 percent of its budget to education. Of that 40 percent, 10.79 percent is directed toward the community colleges.
Critics of the new measure fear that it would create more shortfalls and potentially force the state to dip into its K-12 budget to meet the law's requirements. Partially as a result, the state California Teachers Association (part of the National Education Association) is opposing the measure despite support from a division of the union that represents community college professors, the Community College Association.
The proposal would modify the funding formula, which is currently tied to enrollment, to guarantee per-pupil increases based on the number of student-age adults living in California as well as the state unemployment rate. While the state projects a loss of at least $71 million from student fee revenues in the next academic year, the bill would allocate an estimated $700 million over the next three years from the state's discretionary general fund. It would also grant more power and autonomy to the state community college chancellor and formalize the governance structure.
The potential for more spending in a state with continuing financial struggles and a ballot-initiative culture that sometimes strains the general fund has led some within the college system to criticize the effort. They also point to an unusual provision that would require a four-fifths majority in both houses, plus the governor's signature, to alter the funding formula if the law were passed.
"We strongly believe that our community colleges need more resources," said a spokesman for the California Teachers Association. "Our concern is that this is not the way to go."
And the debate is playing out on individual campuses. Although some colleges have already gone public with their support of the measure -- such as MiraCosta College and Palomar College -- others have considered the potential implications of the new funding scheme.
"You’re always looking for more funding, more support for community colleges, and the question is whether or not that ballot measure is going to actually provide that," said Janet Mazzarella, a professor of mathematics at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif., and the president of the faculty union. "On the surface it seems like it would be an avenue to increase funding to the community colleges, but it does have some downsides so it’s not a guarantee."
At Southwestern, the dispute has trickled down to a looming vote over whether the faculty union, the Southwestern College Education Association, should leave the CTA over its stance on the ballot initiative. Although advocates on campus for leaving the CTA have referenced the issue, Mazzarella said it was unrelated.
"We don’t have a consistent policy statement" on the issue so far, Mazzarella said; the union could decide to endorse either the CTA's position or side with the CTA's community college division, which supports the initiative.
A spokesman for Californians for Improving Community Colleges, which is backing the measure with support from the California Federation of Teachers (a unit of the American Federation of Teachers) and the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, said the initiative comes after years of being shortchanged by the Legislature. This effort represents an attempt to stabilize the funding, he said, and the change in the funding formula is intended to keep the costs lower than they would otherwise be. "The number would be so high that I don’t know if anybody would go for it" otherwise, he said.
“Californians think that we should be investing more in our community colleges, and this is a modest investment.”