After 30 years, the time has come for equal funding for community colleges

As the inevitable politics of the decades-old California community colleges
equalization issue take shape once again, many of us hope that the basic
principles of “equal pay for equal work” and “equal opportunity” for
students will prevail, regardless of which California community college they
attend. After all, this issue is about students and about the communities
that deserve equal service for the tax dollars they invest in a system that
has local responsiveness at its heart.

Despite almost three decades of efforts to correct inequitable funding,
California’s 72 community college districts still receive 72 very different
rates of compensation for full-time-equivalent students (FTES), which is the
basic component of financial support that they receive from the state. The
range of the funding discrepancy is not casual, but spans thousands of
dollars per student. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that
California’s community colleges are almost entirely reliant upon state

By far, the state is the largest contributor to community college funding.
As a result, inequities in funding levels have an overwhelmingly negative
impact since they are unrelieved by other sources of base revenue. Local
governing boards, though elected, lost direct taxing authority with passage
of the 1978 tax measure, Proposition 13, and are unable to generate
additional base financial support to offset the impact of unequal funding.

During the same period since the passage of Proposition 13, the 72 community
colleges districts have become a “system” of community colleges, bound by
the same regulations and held to the same measures of accountability. One
would expect that such a system would be the characterized by uniform
standards of funding both to ensure fairness and to support the outcomes
that are required of all institutions in the system.

The good news is that several years ago a plan was adopted to bring the
underfunded (low-revenue) community college districts to the 90th percentile
of average state funding for community colleges. The plan called for a
special appropriation of $240 million distributed over three years. Even
better news was the Governor’s appropriation of the first installment of $80
million in “equalization funding” in the Budget Act of 2004, which was
enacted with bipartisan support of the legislature.

The community colleges put this new revenue to good use, from expanding
programs and classes for their communities to hiring more full-time faculty
to many other sorely needed improvements. For example, the additional funds
allowed the lower revenue community colleges to restore hundreds of classes
and offer a new “semester,” known as intercession, which takes place during
the winter break between the traditional fall and spring semesters.

Intercession, in effect, places students on a faster track to graduating and
transferring to four-year colleges and universities.

In 2005, the community college system’s Board of Governors called for a
second installment of $80 million. Unfortunately, the final outcome was $30

Late last fall, the Legislative Analyst’s Office stated that the funding
differences among community college districts, spanning thousands of dollars
per student, have “little correlation to underlying costs–A numerous reports
and hearings in recent years have recognized this disparity and have called
for efforts to equalize funding among districts. In general, equalization
can foster increased fairness–A to ensure that students in different parts of
the state have access to similar levels of educational support, which can
translate into similar levels of educational quality and student services.”

In January 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget included the third and
final installment in the effort to bring community colleges to the 90th
percentile–$130 million. These monies would effectively put the equalization
effort on firm footing once and for all. New formulas and approaches would
be able to close the gap from that point forward. The Governor’s budget
summary stated: “Fulfilling the Administration’s commitment to equalize
funding rates for the Community Colleges, the Budget proposes a $130 million
augmentation for the final increment of funding necessary to fully equalize
disparities in credit instruction funding levels among colleges, pursuant to
the statutory formula.”

The importance of equalization dollars cannot be overemphasized. These
dollars mean academic and occupational classes and opportunities for
students. These dollars mean additional faculty members and counselors and
librarians. These dollars mean instructional equipment and supplies. And
these dollars mean tutorial and other support that students need if they are
to succeed. Equalization represents an important investment in student
opportunity, as well as in the community’s economic growth and development.

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