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New LAO Report & 50% Law


November 13, 2009

Dear Colleagues,

LAO Report

Yesterday, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office released a report "The Master Plan at 50: Assessing California’s Vision for Higher Education." While the report largely echoes many of the difficult conversations we have had over the last year, I thought you'd like to see it. Also, I believe it largely defines an agenda that the Legislature will use in its discussions next year.

The LAO recommends:

  • Participation and Learning. Over the past decade, higher education policy discussions have been dominated by the issue of student “access.” The Legislature may want to consider whether the focus on access has come at the expense of other critical goals, including student learning and degree completion. If so, the Legislature may wish to increase attention on student preparation, persistence, and success, as well as the more traditional concerns of eligibility and participation. Topics related to higher education learning outcomes are often discussed in the context of higher education accountability, which is a subject gaining attention nationally.
  • Governance and Organization. The assignment of distinct missions to the three public segments was seen as visionary when the Master Plan was adopted. The Legislature may wish to assess whether the roles, governance, or coordination of the higher education segments may have, or should have, changed over the past 50 years.
  • Funding. About 10 percent of the state General Fund is devoted to higher education. In general, this funding is not tied to specific goals, learning outcomes, or even level of instruction, but rather is based almost exclusively on student contact hours. Moreover, state policy provides little guidance on how education costs should be split between students and the state, nor how various financial aid programs should work together to ensure affordability. The Legislature may wish to examine the effect of funding mechanisms on higher education outcomes.

When we have these discussions, we will again find ourselves defending the broad mission that our communities count on us to maintain. Amidst the three forces of record high-school graduates, the unemployed, and returning veterans, there will be calls to drop some services to focus on others. We will continue to have threats to physical education, theatre arts and lifelong learning as the Legislature takes whatever steps it can to craft additional college spots with no ability to pay for it.

The League will continue to be your voice in Sacramento to ensure that programs and students are not discriminated against and that decisions can continue be made locally by faculty, staff, administrators and trustees. Meanwhile, we all must continue to uphold the trust of local governance and show a sense of prioritization as we consider our state's challenges and stretch a throroughly inadequate budget to meet the needs of so many Californians.

The 50% Law, Faculty Obligation Number and AB 1725

Aside from next year being the 50th anniversary of the Master Plan, this year is the 20th anniversary of the implementation of AB 1725, another abandoned commitment to ensure quality higher education.

While AB 1725, is often used as shorthand for participatory governance, the most significant part of the legislation was a commitment by the Legislature to increase the quality of our institutions across the board. AB 1725 was passed with only one "no" vote and was an enormous commitment by the Legislature of an accessible, quality community college education to all Californians.

The "program improvement" was to be funded by annual investments in the community college budget that would trigger qualitative improvements in our colleges. Over time, to meet the qualitative goals, funding would have been increased to roughly $10,000 in today's dollars, nearly double our current funding levels. In exchange, community colleges would have 75% of credit hours taught by full-time faculty, smaller class sizes, a respectable student:counselor ratio, adequate facility maintenance, and several other measures of quality.

Program improvement funds were provided in 1989 and 1990, and it looked as if the transition of community colleges from outgrowths of K-12 schools to a higher education system was underway.

Unfortunately, the 1990s recession hit, budgets were cut instead of increased and fees jumped significantly. By the time the recession subsided, the restoration of cuts, inflation and growth funding exhausted available funding for community colleges in the state budget, and the commitment to improve the quality of community colleges through AB 1725's mechanism was abandoned.

What does this have to do with the 50% law, which requires that half of each district's current expense of education be spent on classroom salaries and benefits?

The 50% law comes from the history of community colleges as an outgrowth of K-12 schools. K-12 schools have few problems meeting the requirement because an overwhelming share of the instructional expenses are for full-time and benefitted employees. Contrast that with community colleges, which have been forced to rely on too many lower-compensated and non-benefited part-time faculty members to meet the state's enrollment goals.

If we had continued on the path of program improvement and increased our funding to $10,000 per student rather than essentially holding funding per student flat in real dollars over the last twenty years, districts would have no problem meeting the 50% law. Instead, increasing the share of full-time faculty (currently 54% statewide), each one costing $64,221 more for the same load as part-time faculty (according to the Chancellor's Office), would have put college districts statewide well above the 50% law.

Essentially, the 50% law and state investment in full-time faculty are inextricable. Even if the Legislature had approved League-supported budget requests to convert part-time faculty to full-time positions in recent years, districts would have had a lot more "breathing room" above the 50% minimum.

I'm a believer in quality and the value of full-time faculty. Unfortunately, the state has gone in a different direction and made the priority for the budget the quantity of students rather than the quality of education provided. The question going forward, which should be part of a Master Plan discussion, is ensuring the proper balance between quantity and quality, which addresses many of the student success questions that have been asked in recent years.

Meanwhile, we make decisions based on formulas and not what's always best for students and our employees. While it appears that there is general support of major constituencies to allow districts to backfill categorical cuts this year without incurring penalties under the 50% law, the whole discussion shows the true tensions that underlie this law.

Some people want to get rid of the 50% law, some want to tweak it and some want to protect the current law at all costs. Everyone has good arguments, and they all come down to providing as much quality as possible for our students with woefully inadequate funding.

Let us not forget that the true enemy is the abandonment of that commitment of twenty years ago by the Legislature.

Scott Lay
President and Chief Executive Officer
Community College League of California
2017 O Street, Sacramento, California 95811
916.444.8641 . www.ccleague.org 

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Last Updated: 11/16/09