In his State of the State address, Governor Schwarzenegger proposed an ambitious plan for a constitutional amendment to support higher education. The central idea behind this new idea is that the state should reverse its current trend of spending more on incarceration than higher education. As the governor stressed, the state funding for public universities once represented 10% of the budget and prisons made up 3% of the budget; currently, UC and CSU take up 7.5% and prisons eat up 11%. The amendment, which has to be supported by 2/3rds of the legislators and a majority of the voters, would guarantee that universities receive at least 10% of the state general fund budget, and prisons would always receive a lower percentage.
On paper, this looks like a very hopeful proposal, but there are four major problems. The first issue is that the California budget is already dominated by voter approved funding mandates. Many experts blame the recent draconian budget cuts on the fact that not only is it difficult for the state to raise taxes, but lawmakers are forced to spend most of the budget on mandated areas. While the new amendment would treat the universities like K-14, by dictating a certain set formula for funding higher education, the result would be to further tie the hands of the legislators when dealing with budget deficits.
The next problem is that the governor’s main way of reducing the cost of the prison system is to privatize the prisons, and this is a highly unlikely solution. Not only would this amendment have to take on the powerful correctional officers' union, but there is no way of knowing how much privatization would save or if privatization is even a good idea. The real way to bring down the cost of incarceration is to reduce the number of prisoners, and this can only be done by changing the “three strikes” rule and by decriminalizing some non-violent offences like drug possession.
The third problem is that this legislation does nothing to deal with how universities spend the money they get from the state. It is possible that the universities would use the new funds to simply increase the number of administrators. Without tying funding to fiscal accountability measures, new money may just be funneled into old priorities, and the UC has shown that it has no problem using increased funding to support activities unrelated to the university’s core mission.
The fourth major issue is that this is a long-term solution that may undermine the current push to make changes in the UC system. If students, faculty, and workers believe that the governor understands their problems, and he is on their side, they may find that there is no reason to fight against the current decrease in services and the increase in fees. Like the election of Barack Obama, the social movement on the ground may disappear because the leader is saying all of the right things.
The governor did say that he will not cut higher education this year, and this is a good thing, but President Yudof is asking for a major increase in funding, and if he does not get this increase, we will probably see a continued move to raise fees, cut services, and lower the quality of public higher education. The university has already radically reduced its funding for undergraduate education, and there is reason to believe that this agenda will be pursued in the future unless people rise up on the ground and fight for a different vision of the university. In fact, in The New York Times article covering the governor's new proposal, his chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, is quoted as saying that. "“Those protests on the U.C. campuses were the tipping point." It appears our actions have had some effect, but we cannot stop now.