Prop 30 decision props up California – for now

Educators cheered in early November when Proposition 30 passed in California. The unexpected passage of the tax measure, which won by a 54% to 46% margin, is a clear victory for higher education in the state. After four years of relentless budget cuts, the bill will give California’s embattled public university systems some respite by curbing nearly $1 billion in further cuts.

The bill will also mean that college students won’t fall victim to yet another round of tuition hikes, enrolment freezes will be lessened, and hundreds of classes will be reinstated.

This is all certainly cause for celebration, but the state’s higher education institutions still face an uphill battle. Despite the fiscal windfall created by the tax measure, colleges are still grappling with $750 million in cuts for the current fiscal year. And critics say the bill is little more than a stopgap measure that doesn’t adequately address the more pervasive issues that landed California in this financial mess to begin with.

Prop 30 will increase the sales tax marginally, by 0.25% for four years, starting in 2013, as well as raise taxes for seven years on those earning more than $250,000. Unless the economy turns around, there’s a very real possibility that California could face budget gaps when the tax hikes expire. Making the tax increases permanent is likely not the solution, at least as far as Republicans are concerned. The party, which has rallied against increasing taxes on the rich, is likely to fight tooth and nail to ensure that doesn’t come to pass.

Experts agree that caution is needed going forward, as the state looks at more sustainable ways to reduce its nearly $16 billion budget deficit.

“We need the prudence of Joseph going forward over the next seven years,” Governor Jerry Brown said during a recent news conference.

But there’s no denying that the measure offers a silver lining – or more aptly, a life raft – for public higher education in California.

Together, the state’s three public university systems – the University of California (UC) system, the California State University (Cal State) system, and the California Community Colleges – have been hit with a loss of more than $2.5 billion since the start of the recession. Now, the UC and Cal State systems will evade cuts of $250 million each, and the state’s community colleges will receive about $210 million in additional funding.

The latter funding is especially welcome. As reported by University World News in April, community colleges across the country were hit hardest by the cuts, forcing them to deny access to nearly half a million prospective students. The new funding will allow the California community college system to serve about 20,000 more students, and avoid more than $300 million in mid-year cuts.

“I'm guardedly optimistic that we're beginning to find the bottom in California,” California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris said at a media briefing following the vote.

California students will also be spared another bout of tuition increases. Since the 2002/2003 academic year, state funding on the Cal State and the UC systems has dropped by 42%, according to figures from the governor’s office. As a result, students have been forced to pick up the slack, with undergraduate fees nearly tripling over the past decade. Tuition was set to increase by another 20% in December, but thanks to Prop 30, the hike will be avoided, saving each student around $2,400.

Some students will even get money back. The Cal State system plans to reverse a $249 per-semester tuition increase that was instituted in autumn. Students will either be reimbursed or credited for the sum, and tuition will revert to the previous rate of $5,472.

Despite the long road ahead to sustained recovery, Brown said at a recent news conference that the passage of Prop 30 was a “clear and resounding victory” that put the state back in the driver’s seat.

"Instead of the state borrowing, hat in hand, from our school districts, we're going to have enough money to fund the schools as our constitution requires,” he said.

That’s good news for public higher education, and even better news for students.