Thursday, December 12, 2013

As Assembly Follows Students’ Lead, Jerry Brown Looks Lonely on Higher Ed Funding

Jerry Brown | Photo: ohad/Flickr/Creative Commons License

But the Daily Californian has now reported that “Democrats in the state Assembly announced plans Wednesday to expand funding for the UC system”.  The Assembly Speaker (John Perez) and the Assemblywoman who represents Berkeley (Nancy Skinner) led the charge to restore funds to the state’s two university systems—UC and the even larger and more belagured California State University.
In doing so, progressive Democrats are answering charges that they have been reticent to use the supermajorities they were awarded by voters in 2012 after years of Republican Party misrule from its minority perch (empowered by Prop 13).  And whether the four years of student protest are what drove their actions or not, those protests were critical to reminding Californians and their elected representatives that there are serious costs to the privatisation of higher education, costs which are felt by those who represent our state’s future.
Calling for such funding is significant more for the gesture than for its immediate impact on students and the state, and more for the momentum it could represent than for the actual scale of the funds, which are not likely to lead to the reduction of the sky-high tuition which makes UC public in name only.  But Perez’ belief that this budget is an opportunity to “show some of the key priorities that will be shaping the discussion” suggests that Democrats realise how far they have strayed from any sort of commitment to the public good in recent years.
But there is one Democrat who will resist the restoration of funding—however small—to California’s Universities, and he is the one Democrat in a position to halt any renewed commitment to our public institutions, which serve as the bulwark for California’s citizenry.
I speak, of course, of Governor Jerry Brown, who faces re-election in 2014 and is fond of portraying himself as a Democrat even Republican fundamentalists can love.  Brown has turned himself into the very embodiment of austerity, and although his long-term design for the University of California is as opaque as his other policy ambitions or lack thereof, his short-term goals have tended towards subjecting UC to a punishing transformation from a citadel of learning into a kind of educational WalMart.
Brown has insisted on thinking of the University as a market, and if we take him at his word, he is interested in offering an inferior, devalued product to squeezed customers.  That product will be offered by an increasingly ill-treated workforce in an increasingly hostile workplace. 
Of course if we insist on thinking of education as a public good that should be available to any of California’s citizens who has the desires and qualifications to attend the University, we would be equally disturbed, because Brown is demanding that the University abandon the public spirit of its mission and focus on turning itself into a monetised, instrumentalist institution wherein the wealthiest students pay whatever the market can squeeze out of them while other Californians fall between the cracks.
Brown’s idea of the University does not emerge from any deep consideration.  Rather, it comes from the political miscalculation which he doggedly re-writes as some wacky moral imperative to chop away at public institutions out of the misplaced belief that the  leaner, meaner University of the GOP fundamentalists’ dreams would be able to do the same job as the well-funded institution staffed by well-paid faculty and workers and attended by well-supported students.
Brown’s high-water mark was probably the 2012 election, where he reaped the electoral fruits of his austerity drive.  But the fact that just one year after his Proposition 30—which he promised would “fix” higher education for California—passed, he is threatening “gigantic” tuition increases is making clear to Californians just how untrustworthy and uncommitted the Governor is.
In the Assembly, with the backing of California’s students, progressives are offering to commit more funds to UC, and Californians should demand a commitment from that same body to returning UC and CSU over time to their public status by assuming the funding burden as the representatives of the state’s citizenry.
If he fails to seize what is certain to be his last opportunity to accomplish anything significant for California, he might win a hollow election victory next year by walking some vacuous centrist line.  But he will live out his days as Governor as a marginal, obstructionist figure, intent on holding California back rather than on allowing our Republic to make good on its obligations to its citizens.

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