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Assemblymember Bill Monning

bill_MonningLast month, the University of California’s Board of Regents passed a 32 percent student fee increase for undergraduates, leading to statewide protests including several at UC Santa Cruz. What do you think of the increase? What does this mean for the future of higher public education in California?

I have great concerns about the decision by the UC Board of Regents to increase student fees, especially on top of the fee increases that have already been imposed. As one of the intentions stated in the original Master Plan for Higher Education adopted in 1960, a priority was to have higher education remain accessible and affordable for all.  While it is somewhat understandable why the Board of Regents implemented these sizeable increases during this unprecedented budget crisis, these fee increases represent a shortsighted solution that will most likely result in enormous unintended consequences.

There are two significant outcomes to the fee increases that concern me the most. First, as the state moves toward economic recovery, it is essential that there be a well-trained and educated workforce positioned to fill the labor needs of a new economy. By creating financial roadblocks for many students, the state will guarantee the diminishment of the skilled workforce necessary to assist in the state’s economic recovery. Second, California has made progress in the last decade to promote diversity among all of its higher educational institutions.  Proposed fee increases threaten to place diversity gains at risk by diluting the multi-cultural contributions that benefit all UC students and communities.

California is spending more than 6 percent of its annual budget on bond payments, and estimates indicate it could be more than 10 percent by 2014. What problems will the state’s debt create for California and its communities in coming years?

The state’s debt-service ratio, the portion of the state’s General Fund revenues dedicated to paying for the state’s debt service, is rising rapidly. In the past, state officials have tried to keep the debt-service ratio at approximately 5 percent of the state’s annual budget. However, in 2006 California voters approved a large number of General Obligation bonds that the state is now beginning to sell. The non-partisan Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) estimates that the debt-service ratio will obligate almost 9 percent of General Fund revenues by the end of the 2014-15-budget year.

Bond payments are a funding priority of the General Fund and, given that the LAO projects California’s economic recovery in the 2014-15 fiscal year, we will have to dedicate more revenues to paying off the state’s debt-service and fewer revenues to supporting crucial state programs. This is one of the main reasons I opposed the $11.14 billion Water Bond that was approved by the legislature and signed by the governor in November. If the Water Bond is passed by voters in November 2010, it will add additional debt service to California’s budget while the legislature will simultaneously be forced to make more severe cuts to programs that help children, working families, and senior citizens.

The Obama administration recently released the final application requirements for states to apply for the $4.35 billion in competitive grants available under the Race to the Top program. Is California prepared to apply for these grants?

The goal of the Race to the Top (RTTT) Program is to improve K-12 education in the U.S. by providing competitive grants to encourage innovation and reform.  The deadline for the submission of applications is Jan. 19, 2010.

In order to be eligible for the competitive grants, it was necessary for California to make changes to existing education law. Over the past few weeks, the Assembly Education Committee conducted a collaborative process to hear from teachers, parents, business leaders, and social justice groups about the most effective ways to pursue these changes.

The result of this process was Assembly Bill (AB) 5X 8, authored by Assemblymember Brownley, which not only puts California in the best possible position to be competitive for RTTT grants, but also enacts reforms that are good for California’s students and teachers. This legislation will allocate 80 percent of any RTTT funding for local purposes, while allowing only 20 percent  to be kept at the state level.

AB 5X 8 also prioritizes RTTT funds for professional development in low-performing schools and requires direct intervention to turn around failing schools.  These reforms not only bolster California’s application for RTTT funds but will also improve the education received by students throughout our state, and it is for this reason that I supported AB 5X 8 when it came before me on the Assembly Floor.

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