Community colleges head to 2008 ballot over Proposition 98

California’s community colleges, the nation’s largest higher-education system with more than 1 million full-time students, want to change the state’s Constitution to protect their funding.

Community-college advocates have begun submitting signatures for a ballot measure that would redefine the role of enrollment and formally alter the decades-old linkage to the K-12 public schools. It is the most important policy proposal affecting the 109-campus system since voters approved Proposition 98 two decades ago to protect the money for schools and the two-year colleges.

“I think you could say that this concludes the 50-year migration of the community colleges from the public schools. We were born out of the public-school system, but we continue to be hamstrung by segments of the Education Code that are designed to protect children. Our program needs are different. Our students are adults,” said Dennis Smith, president of the Faculty Association of the California Community Colleges, a sponsor of the proposed initiative.

College officials this week began submitting some 900,000 voter signatures to county election officials across the state. They need 598,105 valid signatures to qualify for the 2008 ballot; legislation mirroring the initiative has been introduced in the Legislature.

As a creature of government, community colleges are popular in the Capitol and popular among voters, and they poll higher than other state institutions of higher education, politicians and legislators agree. “So I think voters would be very sympathetic to providing a dependable source of revenue,” said Senator Jack Scott, D-Altadena, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a former college administrator.

But there is a larger political question: Will voters be willing to change Proposition 98 of 1988, a sensitive issue during a time when public education ranks among the highest of voter concerns and the proposition, the voter-approved landmark education-funding initiative, is seen as a protective cordon around school funding?

In the end, voters want reassurance that nothing in the community-college initiative would deplete funding for K-12 schools. “Voters made it clear in the special election, ‘Don’t mess with Proposition 98,'” said Scott Lay, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, a backer of the initiative. “We have to make it clear that this is an extension of Proposition 98, that this is a needed fix to 98 and that we are not taking from K-12.” Other backers include the California Federation of Teachers.

“It’s a communications issue,” he added. “If you don’t like ballot-box budgeting and you’re stuck with Prop. 98, shouldn’t you have a Prop. 98 that works?”

The biggest question mark is the role of the California Teachers Association, which did not participate in signature gathering. Several Capitol sources say CTA representatives have been attacking the proposed initiative in private meetings with lawmakers. The CTA did not discuss those meetings, and said that it had not taken a position on the proposal.

“We don’t take positions on initiatives until they are actually on the ballot,” said CTA spokeswoman Becky Zoglman.

But the well-financed CTA could prove a major problem for the initiative if the group decides to come out in opposition.

The proposed initiative would make several changes to Proposition 98. It would include community-college enrollment data as part of the formula to determine funding for the two-year schools. Currently, K-12 enrollment is used in the calculation for community colleges, as well as the K-12 schools.

It would set a $15-per-unit charge, then make future changes pegged to fluctuations in per-capita income; fees currently are $20 per unit, down from a high of $26. It would assure the community college’s share of Proposition 98 funding, what budget writers call the “percentage split,” which varies but now is at about 10.93 percent. That funding–absent two-thirds votes in the Legislature–is supposed to be already in effect, but the money is often diverted elsewhere. “We’ve achieved that split twice since the late 1980s, and this year is the second time,” Smith said.

It would give greater autonomy to the community-college system, allowing the chancellor to appoint a top deputy without going through the governor’s appointments process, and it would move the system away from the public schools.

“We are getting a divorce. We will be moving into a whole new paradigm,” said FACCC executive director Jonathan Lightman. “The significance of this is that K-12 would not have the political advantage of going in and determining funding for the community colleges.”

The timing of the initiative could be affected by a separate plan to move up California’s 2008 presidential primary to March. That plan, which is likely to be tied to accompanying proposals on term limits and redistricting reform, is intended to boost California’s role in the presidential nomination process. But advocates say that even a free-for-all primary, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and Mitt Romney and John McCain for the GOP, would have little impact on the outcome of the initiative.

“We are confidant we could win,” Lay said.

Contact John Howard at

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