California, under incompetent elitist politicians backed by the states privileged classes, starved its schools of cash. Now its once vaunted public education system is dying a slow death.
It was the greatest education system the world had ever seen. They built it into the eucalyptus-dotted Berkeley hills and under the bright lights of Los Angeles, down in the valley in Fresno and in the shadows of the San Bernardino Mountains.
Hundreds of college campuses, large and small, two-year and four-year, stretching from California’s emerald forests in the north to the heat-scorched Inland Empire in the south.
Each had its own DNA, but common to all was this: they promised a “public” education, accessible and affordable, to those with means and those without, a door with a welcome mat into the ivory tower, an invitation to a better life.
Starting in the 1970s, California bled that system dry.
Over three decades, voters starved their state — and so their colleges and universities — of cash.
Corrupt elitist politicians siphoned away what money remained and spent it more on imprisoning people, not educating them.
College administrators grappled with shriveling state support by jacking up tuitions, tacking on new fees, and so asking more each year from increasingly pinched students and families.
Today, many of those students stagger under a heap of debt as they linger on waiting lists to get into the over-subscribed classes they need to graduate.
California’s public higher education system is, in other words, dying a slow death.
The promise of a cheap, quality education is slipping away for the working and middle classes, for immigrants, for the very people whom the University of California’s creators held in mind when they began their grand experiment nearly 150 years ago.
And don’t think the slow rot of public education is unique to California: that state’s woes are the nation’s.
California would not exist as we know it today without higher education. At its peak, the state’s constellation of community colleges and Cal State and University of California campuses had no rival. It was the crown jewel of American education.
Abraham Lincoln launched the college-building craze when, in 1862, as the bullets flew and the bodies fell on the battlefields of the Civil War, he signed the Morrill Act, giving every state a huge tract of federal land with which to build a public university.
In 1869, California joined the craze by opening the University of California. One newspaper editorial hailed it as “the perfect structure, a magazine of new thoughts and new motives, ready for the new and bright day of the future.” Another supporter declared that it would be a “mighty anchor in the stream of time.”
Yet not until California’s trust-busting Progressive politicians claimed power in the early 1900s did the populist promise of the state’s higher education system begin to take shape.
The Progressives saw higher education as a path to the middle class — and with an educated middle class they were convinced they could loosen the stranglehold corporate powers like the Southern Pacific Railroad had on the state. “The university was their Progressive dream come true,” historian Kevin Starr has written.
State support for the University of California soared from a few hundred thousand dollars in 1900 to more than $3 million by 1920. As future UC president, Clark Kerr would write, “The campus is no longer on the hill with the aristocracy but in the valley with the people.”
Down in that valley, more and more people wanted an education. New campuses sprouted statewide before World War II, and then in its wake were flooded with returning GIs and former war workers. Governor Earl Warren used those colleges and universities as “shock absorbers” when the state’s wartime economy-on-steroids slowed. He put his money on a novel concept: California would educate its way out of any post-war slump.
The education system exploded in the 1940s and 1950s. Students poured into classrooms. But not until Kerr became president did he, and other education leaders attempt to create a systemic blueprint for growth with what was called the “California Master Plan for Higher Education.” Under this plan, the brightest students were to attend a flagship UC school, the next-smartest group would go to a Cal State school, and the remainder would start at a two-year community college with an eye toward transferring to a four-year college.
The Master Plan brought order to a rapidly growing system. It was hailed around the world as a stroke of genius when it came to educating young people. In 1960, Time magazine even put Kerr on its cover, bestowing on him the title of “master planner.” (Kerr was a complicated figure. He later clashed with UC-Berkeley’s famed Free Speech Movement, yet FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed he was too close to campus activists and secretly pushed for his ouster. The college’s board of regents-unceremoniously fired him in 1967.)
This was the heyday of California higher education. Enrollment grew by 300% between 1930 and 1960, and the state’s share of college funding kept pace. But that all started to change on June 6, 1978, when California voters approved Proposition 13, a ballot measure that limited property tax assessments.
Proposition 13 was the brain child of Howard Jarvis, a boozing and smoking Jack Mormon. He was a political hack and lobbyist who was the man behind the tax saving initiative that helped kill California’s public education system.
More importantly, it handcuffed state lawmakers by requiring a two-thirds supermajority any time they wanted to increase taxes and made a two-thirds vote among citizens necessary to raise local taxes. Prop. 13 kicked off California’s “tax revolt” of the 1970s and 1980s, a slew of ballot measures that choked off revenue for state and local governments and left lawmakers scrambling to fill the gap. It was the beginning of the demise of public higher education in California.
The results were the “Mississippification” of California.
Hot with the fever of an antitax, small-government movement, Californians began the long, slow burn-down of the state’s higher education system.
California is being starved to death by a public that thinks any government service — even public education — is not worth paying for. And by political leaders who do not lead but instead give in to our worst, shortsighted instincts.
It is time to increases taxes on all the elitist industries in Silicone Valley along with the entertainment giants in Hollywood, headed all by greedy white males, pay for public education.