Printed in Berkeley Daily Planet: Good for Students, Good for California

(This essay was printed in the Berkeley Daily Planet on January 29, 2008)

Berkeley citizens are among the most active and contentious in the world. So are their elected officials. So, it’s not very often when they agree on much. An extraordinary thing has happened in this Feb 5 primary though. Every single locally elected official in Berkeley agrees: Vote yes on Proposition 92, the measure to save our community colleges. Yes, unanimously, Mayor Tom Bates, Supervisor Keith Carson, the entire Berkeley School Board and full City Council, City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan, the whole Rent Board, Representatives to EBMUD, the Parks District, BART, AC Transit and of course the Peralta College Board— all of them agree, Prop. 92 is good not just for Community Colleges but also for the City, the state and all citizens.

Voting for Prop. 92 in the Feb 5 primary is not only the single most important thing voters can do to help the lives of 2.5 million community college students in our state, it is also the single most important thing voters can do to help stop California’s economy from turning into a nose dive. The only question is this: will voters be able to see through the campaign of disinformation and outright lies being put forward by opponents of Prop. 92?

What does Prop. 92 do?

  • Lowers student fees to $15 a unit & limits increases to the cost of living.
  • Guarantees minimum funding for community college growth.
  • Does not hurt K-12 funding.
  • Guarantees a system of community college districts that are in touch with local needs and accountable to local voters

Everyone has praise for California’s community colleges. Even the opposition to Prop. 92 says, “We all support community colleges.” But here’s the stark truth: California’s per student funding of community colleges ranks 45th in the nation. For 15 years, the Sacramento politicians have not had the political will to do the right thing by middle class and working families. The UC’s are funded at $18,000 per student, the CSU’s get $12,000, and the K-12 system gets $8,500. And even this is not enough. But Community Colleges come in dead last at a miserable $5,200 per student.

What Californians need most is good jobs and good schools. Community Colleges deliver on both scores building an educated citizenry who can work in, and create, skilled jobs. Yes, there are many demands crying for attention in the state budget, from health care to public safety and choices must be made. So, we can invest in people at the front end and give them a real chance of success, or we can clean up the disasters that happen when our citizens are shut out of the economy. The old approach to budgeting will impoverish us as a state because it does not make investing in our people and in our communities our top priority.

Prop. 92’s funding of Community Colleges is vital because these are investments that pay for themselves in very short order. More educated citizens use fewer state social services, stay out of prison, and pay far more in taxes. In fact, for every dollar we invest in community colleges we get back $3.00 in budget savings and revenue. The best antidote to the coming recession is passage of Prop. 92. In lean years, the worst thing you can do is to eat your seed corn. Instead, you plant it and look towards the coming year’s crop. In other words, a sound economy requires long-term planning, not panic.

Prop. 92 makes more that just good budget sense. It also transforms the lives of Californians and helps our communities flourish. Community college students who earn a vocational degree or certificate see their wages jump in just three years from $25,600 to $47,571. I personally don’t know of any other more effective way to lift people out of poverty and to give them a shot at the kind of life America promises.

Opponents of Prop. 92 have sent out a misleading hit piece claiming that community college spending is not accountable and will not benefit students. They also say that Prop. 92 will hurt K-12 funding. These are complete fabrications meant to scare and confuse voters. The truth: state law requires that at least 50 percent of every community college dollar be spent directly in the classroom. And this does not even include spending for counselors, librarians, financial aid specialists, tutors and the host of other services needed to support today’s students. The truth: K-12 funding is not touched by Prop. 92. This is why Oakland School Board President David Kakashiba, the entire Berkeley School Board and the SF School Board have all endorsed Prop. 92. Finally, locally elected community college Boards of Trustees and annual outside financial audits guarantee accountability at the most local level. If Trustees are not doing a good job, voters can throw us out of office at each election. This is our most basic system of democratic accountability. To assert otherwise is a lie, plain and simple.

Prior to now, no one has seriously ever argued that California’s community colleges are “not accountable,” are wasteful or lack transparency of budgets. As the Contra Costa Times editorialized in their endorsement of Prop. 92: “[The community college] system is by far the most efficiently run in California.” The truth is that Prop. 92 writes into the State Constitution a stronger system of local accountability by constitutionally establishing a system of locally elected boards of trustees who must stand for election before a local electorate and by taking Sacramento politics out of the hiring process at the State Chancellor’s office.

The American Promise. Go and spend an afternoon or an evening at Berkeley City College. What you’ll find is an amazing institution that literally is transforming the people’s lives. You’ll find great students who cannot afford four years at the now-overpriced UC’s. You’ll find laid-off workers, many with BA degrees, re-tooling for a new job or preparing for graduate school. You’ll find basic skills students who dropped out of high school but now are building a path towards a career and a productive place in their communities. You’ll find immigrants learning English and trying to find a new home in America. You’ll also find a lot of students who have a love of life-learning. 70 percent of all college students in the state are attending classes in one of the 109 CC campuses. We like to say that community colleges accept the top 100 percent of students. In other words, community colleges are these vital institutions that represent the very core of the promise of America.

We can all say that we support community colleges, but when Sacramento politics for 15 years in a row has shortchanged the community colleges and left their funding near the bottom in national rankings, you just have to question how sincere their support is. It’s time for the citizens of this state to exercise the power of direct democracy once again and do what Sacramento cannot seem to do: invest in the future. Vote yes on Proposition 92.

Nicky González Yuen is vice president of the Peralta Community College Board of Trustees representing Berkeley, Emeryville and Albany and also chair of the De Anza Community College Political Science Department.