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The Aftershocks From Education Disaster (San Francisco Chronicle) February 7, 1995

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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For California it’s been a tough couple of years: devastating fires, floods and earthquakes have taken their toll on the Golden State. But there is a man-made disaster occurring right under our noses that has much father-reaching effects than these.

Sadly, many in disaster-prone California are now experiencing a calamity that’s been years in the making — the decline and fall of its system of higher education. Once the envy of the world, California higher education led the way in developing a master plan under which four parts — UC, Cal State, community colleges and private universities — would each plan a distinctive role in providing our students unprecedented opportunities.

Today, in the face of California’s extraordinary budget storms, our leadership role in higher education is heading downhill faster than a mudslide, and our master plan for the future is in shambles.

But instead of moving into a disaster recovery mode, and creatively rethinking and restructuring what we do, it appears to be business as usual for educational policymakers. A recent report from the California Postsecondary Education Commission on the future of California higher education poses few new ideas, and no dramatic ones. Next year’s budget offers some increased financing for certain sectors, but nothing that will right the ship. And the universities themselves, discouraged by financial difficulties, offer little by way of creative leadership.

I’d like to propose that, rather than riding this master plan and the lack of financing to the bottom, we call together educational leaders and policymakers to draw up a new plan. A new master plan should not only review the old assumptions about which sectors of higher education do what, and which students are qualified for each, but it should break through to some new assumptions:

* Let’s replace the political haggling over which sectors of higher education need money the most (they all need it), place the money in the hands of students in the forms of financial aid and let them choose where that money will go.

* I love the idea that even though I make a nice salary, my kids could go to UC for a pittance. But that won’t be worth much if UC doesn’t have the money to remain a high quality institution. And even the fees now charged at Cal State (just under $2,000) are insurmountable for many in the next generation of California’s leaders. Instead of subsidizing every family — a wonderful idea in boom times — why not charge what it actually costs to educate a student in the state system, and subsidize those who need help in the form of financial aid?

* The single most important revolution in higher education is technology. And yet the state which spawned the Silicon Valley is falling steadily behind in its ability to train students for the information age. I believe voters, who would not take on more bond indebtedness for campus buildings, would invest in new technologies — and they are cheaper than bricks and mortar. I have only to look at the interactive, computer-oriented work my young children are doing to know our universities are not ready to teach them in our outmoded lecture halls. Distance learning alone could solve many of our growth challenges.

* If I haven’t already lost my colleagues in higher education, I will by proposing this. In strong economic times, it was a clever and wonderful idea to tie research into university budgets and fund faculty scholarship and new laboratories. But in hard times, state public policy should demand that teaching students comes first. Research should be funded by government, education and private industry, but not in ways that take resources from our first priority.

Education is the key to economic development, as well as to the future of California’s students. A commitment to an educated California will pay off. Let’s sit down, as we did decades ago, and build a master plan, but one that is based on current realities and highest priorities.

This op/ed appeared on Page A-21.

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