Teachers split over community-college-funding initiative

California’s teacher unions are divided over the most important education-policy proposal to go before voters in two decades: the attempt to protect community colleges’ money by writing safeguards into the state constitution.

“It’s really just a question of counting noses,” said Sen. Jack Scott, D-Pasadena, the head of the Senate Education Committee. “The [California Teachers Association] is probably more than 95 percent representative of K-through-12, while the [California Federation of Teachers] has a higher proportion of community-college teachers,” said Scott, a former community-college president who has endorsed the initiative.

“The CTA is much more vigorous for K-12 than it is for community-college funding,” he added.

At issue is the initiative that will appear on the February 5 ballot. It would set a $15-per-unit fee, with future changes pegged to fluctuations in per-capita income. Currently, the fees are $20 per unit, down from a high of $26.

The initiative would assure the community college’s share of Proposition 98 funding, what budget writers call the “percentage split,” that theoretically is now is at about 10.93 percent. That funding benchmark was approved by voters in 1988 in the landmark education-protection initiative, Proposition 98.

But the benchmark is rarely met. The February initiative, Proposition 92, qualified for the ballot after backers submitted 900,000 signatures. The initiative would set the level at 10.46 percent–lower than Proposition 98, but with a requirement that the new level be consistently met year to year.

“[The initiative] is really about making that very small tweak to the funding formula to enable us to provide access to this generation of college students,” said Carl Friedlander, who heads the CFT’s Community College Council. The 107-campus community-college system, the largest college system in the nation, has about a million full-time students, and statewide enrollment is growing about 5 percent annually. At the same time, K-12 enrollment growth is flat lining.

But CTA believes the initiative could siphon money from other, critically needed programs, including K-12 schools.

“[Community colleges] do need additional resources, but we don’t think this is the best way to go about it,” said CTA spokeswoman Sandra Jackson. “We don’t think this is a very well-crafted initiative, and it would require funding cuts for CSU, UC, pre-schools, health care and social services, as well as K-12.

The tension between the differing enrollments reflects the tension between CTA and CFT over the initiative. Since school funding is linked directly to enrollment, disputes over the money are all but certain. “It’s our anticipation that there is going to be no growth in K-12 enrollment statewide,” said Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-San Mateo. “If I were the community colleges, I certainly would be making a strong push for it, too.”

The dispute also reflects the tension between the two unions.

CTA, with 1,100 chapters across the state, represents some 340,000 teachers, counselors, psychologists, librarians and others. The group, the largest professional-employee organization in the state, is affiliated with the National Education Association. The CTA has been a major political player in Sacramento for decades.

The CFT, which represents about 120,000 members, has 135 locals, each affiliated with the Central Labor Council and the California Labor Federation. Its members include a substantial number at the community-college level. The group was spawned, in part, by teachers unhappy with CTA’s representation.

The CFT is composed of 135 local unions chartered by the American Federation of Teachers. Each local is also affiliated with its regional Central Labor Council and the California Labor Federation. The CFT represents over 120,000 educational employees, including K-12 schools, community colleges and the University of California.

Friedlander said the public support for the initiative appears to be strong, and CFT’s online description of the issue suggests that support is about two-thirds of potential voters. “Though initial polling indicates a 63 percent level of support without arguments, which moves to 69 percent after arguments are made, a bare-bones campaign is still needed,” the site says.

But early polling can be unreliable, and few voters are even aware that the proposal is on the ballot. The polling does not reflect the impact of the opposition–none yet is listed by the secretary of state’s office. But the coming budget year is expected to be difficult, with a multibillion-dollar shortage likely, which would put pressure on the CTA to aggressively challenge the initiative.

Since the 1990s, education has ranked at the top in voters’ concerns, and their mood has resulted in a reluctance to disturb Proposition 98. Politicians in the Capitol are well aware of that sentiment. The community colleges say Proposition 92 is simply an extension of Proposition 98, but a well-funded opposition campaign–CTA has the reputation for big spending–could whittle into the support for the initiative. Moreover, it could result in a public-relations backfire.

But whatever happens at the ballot, the initiative has already sent a signal to the Capitol that the fight for education funding is changing and that the community colleges are playing an increasingly aggressive role.

“It’s going to be a food fight, literally, for who gets the money,” Mullin said.

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