California’s Broken Higher Ed Dream

The Los Angeles Times adapted a speech Jeff Bleich, chairman of the Cal State University Board of Trustees, gave to the board, and ran it as a column. It’s rather depressing:

For nearly six years, I have served on the Board of Trustees of the California State University system — the last two as its chairman. This experience has been more than just professional; it has been a deeply personal one. With my term ending soon, I need to share my concern — and personal pain — that California is on the verge of destroying the very system that once made this state great.

Bleich explains how a huge portion of his success is due to California’s investments in higher education—he went to college on the East Coast but UC Berkeley’s law school was the only one he could afford.

He then launches into a pretty devastating critique of the state’s politics:

My story is not unique. It is the story of California’s rise from the 1960s to the 1990s. Millions of people stayed here and succeeded because of their California education. We benefited from the foresight of an earlier generation that recognized it had a duty to pay it forward.

That was the bargain California made with us when it established the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960. By making California the state where every qualified and committed person can receive a low-cost and high-quality education, all of us benefit. Attracting and retaining the leaders of the future helps the state grow bigger and stronger. Economists found that for every dollar the state invests in a CSU student, it receives $4.41 in return.

So as someone who has lived the California dream, there is nothing more painful to me than to see this dream dying. It 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.

The ineffective response to the current financial crisis reflects trends that have been hurting California public education for years. To win votes, political leaders mandated long prison sentences that forced us to stop building schools and start building prisons. This has made us dumber but no safer. Leaders pandered by promising tax cuts no matter what and did not worry about how to provide basic services without that money. Those tax cuts did not make us richer; they’ve made us poorer. To remain in office, they carved out legislative districts that ensured we would have few competitive races and leaders with no ability or incentive to compromise. Rather than strengthening the parties, it pushed both parties to the fringes and weakened them.

Exactly. California serves as a useful (if demoralizing) example of the folly of having the political discourse surrounding the economy center around tax cuts and nothing but tax cuts. The results in this case were predictably disastrous.

Make sure to read the rest of the column.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.