Friday, November 23, 2007

Propositioned at school

Playing the game

During my stint on the staff of the California legislature, my boss used to lament the sorry state of the initiative process. It had, he said, fallen into the clutches of political operatives. They would, for a suitably large fee, collect the signatures necessary to place on the ballot any scheme favored by big-buck special interests. The California state lottery was enacted by a ballot initiative sponsored by Scientific Games (which later snagged the lucrative contract to run it). A similar story is true of the notorious property tax “reform” scheme known as Proposition 13 (which richly rewarded the commercial property owners who backed it). Operatives for the Republican Party are currently trying to get the voters to approve a proposal to siphon off presidential electoral votes from the statewide winner and award them to the runner-up (who is almost always the Republican in California general elections). The initiative process has been transformed from a means to advance populist grassroots political movements to a tool in the hands of “astroturf” specialists.

In particular, my boss regretted the way that government-by-initiative limited the ability of the legislature and governor to address the state's problems. With more and more policies being specified by special-interest rules and fund allocations, less and less was under the discretionary control of the state's elected officials. In the resulting vicious circle, legislative shortcomings are magnified by the limitations under which they operate, the public gets more irate at the state government's deficiencies, more initiatives get circulated and enacted into law by popular vote, and matters continue to deteriorate.

Now Proposition 92 comes along. The glossy fliers in its favor have begun to appear in my mail box, courtesy of my presence on union mailing lists and my occupation as a community college faculty member. As an initiative skeptic who tends to look askance at such campaigns (who's behind it? is it for real? is it a scam?), I naturally poke around in the details for a while before deciding which way to go. The evidence in this case is abundantly clear: Proposition 92 is a classic example of special-interest legislation. Its provisions are designed to protect and advance the priorities of a particular segment of the California electorate. My segment.

If enacted, Proposition 92 would direct more state funding toward K-12 schools and community colleges. Since it contains no revenue-generating provisions (no taxes!), Proposition 92's claim on education dollars would naturally come at the expense of the other major players, the California State University and the University of California. Quite naturally, therefore, the CSU and UC have announced their formal opposition to Proposition 92.

Although my old boss would probably shake his head and chide me gently for my decision, I expect to vote for Proposition 92. I have to decide if it is just selfish self-interest that motivates me (the usual criticism I make of proponents of other interest-group initiatives) or whether I can credibly make a case for the proposition. After all, this is the game that everyone plays in California. Community colleges have long refrained from going this route, but when everyone else is grabbing goodies at the dinner table, how long do you insist on starving before you reach out yourself?

I'm not keen on this kind of reasoning, but a hardscrabble fight for survival is what occurs in the absence of leadership from Sacramento. The K-14 cohort has a modicum of protection from Proposition 98, which was passed by the voters in 1988. It contains an allocation scheme for the state education funds apportioned to public elementary schools, high schools, and community colleges. The provisions of Proposition 98 stipulate that 10.9% of the budgeted monies are to go to the community colleges. The legislature, however, has seen fit to depart from that formula: It usually gives the colleges less. The Legislative Analyst's Office, which generally decries “autopilot budgeting,” has advised the governor and legislature to respect the community college mandate in Proposition 98, but that advice had fallen on deaf ears. The result? An effort like Proposition 92 to strengthen the hand of the community college system.

Grasping for student dollars

A constant refrain from analysts of education policy is that California community colleges need to charge higher tuition. As they correctly observe, the current rate of $20 per unit is the lowest in the nation, resulting in a total of $640 for two full-time semesters of 16 units each. The national average is closer to $2000. The usual argument is that increasing fees to the national average would bring a flood of new revenue to the community colleges but would not slam the door on student enrollment, since the higher fees would make our students eligible for such federal assistance programs as Pell grants, thus offsetting the higher costs.

This is an argument that greatly exasperates me. Student enrollment in our system is very sensitive to changes in fees. Many of our students are the first people in their families to enroll in college. They see the fee system as the sticker price on the education they want. The various cash-back, mail-in rebate gimmicks you see in retail outlets are the last things our students need to deal with as they make their first tentative steps into higher education. Raising fees will keep potential students from ever setting foot on campus, so they'll never even discover that they can file stacks of requests for waivers and grants. The more complicated the system, the less attractive it is for potential first-time college students. Proposition 92 flies in the face of the conventional wisdom by rolling back fees to $15 per unit. Good!

I despair that this point will ever be grasped by those who keep demanding higher student fees. The people with sharp pencils can prove a million different ways that students can afford the higher fees, but sticker-shock and the need to jump through more hoops will keep too many of them away. Pay attention!


eProf2 said...

I support Prop 92, even though I can't vote for it living in another state. I matriculated at a CA community college in the early 60's and a state college a few years later when tuition (technically fees) were zero and $48 respectively. The CA economy boomed to the fifth strongest in the world as a result of more and more students graduating from both community colleges and state colleges and universities where fees were extremely low in comparison to other states. Interestingly, CA cc enrollments are up right now as a result of the recent reduction in fees while places like AZ, WA, and OR are seeing enrollment declines. Again, nicely done post. Since I can't vote in CA, will you vote early and often for me and others who support this proposition?

Porlock Junior said...

A good argument, but there is a nit that must be picked, especially with a math guy on the line.

That's quite a nice gee-whiz graph the Community College League gives us, isn't it? Manages to make a difference of about 15% (0.0945 vs 0.1093) look like a factor of 4 or so. Not even any wigglly lines to show truncation of the ordinates. Tsk.

And the facts are bad enough. I don't know whether that makes the bad graph more or less excusable.

[Gee-whiz graph concept due to Darrell Huff, natch.]

Zeno said...

A thoroughly valid criticism, P Jr. It's clearly designed as a polemical graph and not simply an informational one. Stands to reason I found it on the "Yes on 92" site. Perhaps I should have redrawn it, but lethargy argued against it.