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Q&A with Jonathan Lightman: The Uncertain Future of California’s Community Colleges

This winter, California voters have a big decision to make. To help climb out of a nearly $9 billion shortfall, California passed a budget last week dependent largely on tax increases. This November, a tax initiative will be on the ballot that would temporarily increase taxes for high earners and raise the sales tax in order to funnel money into education and other areas that have been suffering from cuts during recent years.

For community colleges, which have had to cut back at a time when demand is increasing, the voters’ decision represents a $500 million dollar swing.

The Hechinger Report spoke with Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California’s Community Colleges (FACCC), an organization of 10,000 community college faculty, about what the decision would mean for the future of higher education in the state.

Q: What does it mean for California’s community colleges if the tax initiative isn’t passed in November?

A: It’s highly demoralizing to folks who work in the public system. But more concretely it is that to run systems of higher education where you’re not only attending to the present but you’re attending to the future, to get legislators to make spending commitments from money that they don’t have or have little political will to collect, what it does is puts these institutions on a downward spiral, and that’s what we’ve been seeing.

There is just simply a crush of pressure on the community colleges. And our one opportunity is the tax initiative in November and it’s very, very critical that this pass because what it represents is the opportunity to come out of a multi-year downward spiral. It’s not a cure-all. And I think we have to recognize that. Because the need is as ridiculously great as it is, but it is still so fundamentally necessary because the swing just for community colleges alone is monumental if it passes or doesn’t pass. Essentially if the initiative is approved community colleges would receive $213 million in additional funds. Of that, $50 million would go to restoring course sections that have been cut.

If the initiative fails, then not only do the community colleges not get the $213 million, there would be an additional reduction of $338 million and this would translate into a 7.5 percent funding cut, which would be done through a workload reduction. So essentially colleges would be serving fewer students would have fewer course sections and would pare down their staff accordingly.

That’s fairly monumental at a time when the pressure on the community colleges to retrain an unemployed workforce is very high and when students who in an earlier era if they were eligible would never have thought about not going to the University of California, but today there is the issue about affordability in those systems.

Also, we still have demography issue. We have a higher percentage of 18-24 year-olds in the state than in other periods of history. And, we have the other issue of the demobilization of our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan that have come home and are seeking higher education opportunities to transition into the civilian economy. So, it’s created the perfect storm for demand for community college seats, and this is at the very time when the legislature is saying, ‘Well, sorry, we don’t have the funds for you.’ So the voters now have been given an option to say what is important to them. Do we increase our sales tax slightly as well as change our marginal rate on income taxes or do we favor lower taxes and lower services?

What is the most important thing for people to understand about the budget decision as it relates to higher education and its future in California?

Higher education is at risk. And we have to affirm the value of higher education and the other thing to understand is that California is globally positioned. This is not a knock on Wyoming or North Dakota or other smaller states, but they do not compete on a global scale like California does. So, if higher education is disabled, there is a national and a global ripple effect.

This story appeared originally in The Hechinger Report.

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