Pomp and Stingy Circumstance
Arnold Schwarzenegger's political skills make for bad public policy on education.
By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page A27
BERKELEY, Calif. -- Suddenly "Pomp and Circumstance" was booming out of the Zellerbach Auditorium sound system and there she was -- my daughter Miranda, that short blonde in the front row (no mere mortarboard could obscure those locks) as the orchestra section filled up with hundreds of graduating University of California history majors last Friday morning. And just as suddenly, but not in the least surprisingly, I was overwhelmed by every stereotypical parental emotion: How had that erstwhile little munchkin become this terrific young woman? How had she grown so supremely capable at a whole range of things that neither her mother nor I could do if our lives depended on it? And -- inevitably -- where had the time gone?
It was a marvelous, poignant morning, and I wish the same for every parent of every student in California. Unfortunately, fewer parents and students will have the opportunity that we had last week in Berkeley, and therein hangs a tale of myopic university administrators, internal Republican politics, and a charismatic and politically gifted governor who lacks the faintest idea of how to build a better state.
For getting a college education in California has grown more difficult on Arnold Schwarzenegger's watch. One day before Miranda's graduation, the University of California (UC) regents met and decreed a 14 percent tuition increase for undergraduates (and 20 percent for grad students) -- this on top of tuition increases of roughly 40 percent in 2002 and 2003. A Berkeley education for California residents may still be the greatest single bargain in the United States today. But it's a bargain that children of the increasingly underpaid California working class are growing less able to afford.
The crunch doesn't affect only the poor. Earlier this month UC President Robert C. Dynes cut a deal with Schwarzenegger. In return for a not-very-specific promise of increased funding in future years, Dynes and his counterpart at the California State University (CSU) system agreed to swallow the governor's proposed budget cuts for this year, which will deny UC admission to 7,500 qualified students who otherwise would have gone to Berkeley, UCLA or one of the system's seven other campuses. An even greater number of qualified Cal State students will be turned away, too.
Talk about a false economy! Forty-plus years ago, then-Gov. Pat Brown issued what until this month was the master plan for higher education in California, whereby the top 12 percent of in-state high school graduates could count on admission to UC, the next 33 percent to the CSU system and the balance to the state's two-year junior (now "community") colleges. By common consent California's greatest governor, Brown built a number of new UC and CSU campuses, funded the best primary and secondary education systems in the nation, erected freeways and aqueducts -- and did it all without plunging the state deeply into debt. His secret was high taxes, and it produced a state that worked so well that California was the epicenter of the American dream for decades thereafter.
California's current governor is certainly no slouch when it comes to the political maneuvering required to enact his own agenda. By negotiating secretly with the university presidents, Schwarzenegger utterly undercut the Democratic legislature, which was determined to pass a budget that would not decimate UC.
But Arnold's political skills have made for some awful public policy. By refusing to restore the tax bracket that applied to California's wealthiest citizens during the 1990s, he is shortchanging the young people on whom the state's future depends. Schwarzenegger is also proposing a 44 percent cut in Cal Grants -- a program for qualified students from poor families that enables them to attend in-state private and public colleges.
Peter Dreier, a political scientist at Occidental College, a small, rigorous Los Angeles college with a stunningly diverse student body, notes that "most of my best students -- disproportionately immigrants and the children of immigrants -- have been those who would not have been able to attend college without Cal Grants."
When Arnold ran for office, he made a tacit compact with the Republican right: It would have to indulge his cultural libertarianism, but he had to pledge never to raise taxes. Now, whenever Arnold goes on "The Tonight Show" and allows as how gay marriage doesn't really bother him, his freedom of motion on taxes is diminished all the more.
Then again, Arnold is something of an economic libertarian himself.
He betrays no understanding that a well-educated citizenry was the secret of the postwar California boom, or that investing in promising young Californians today does more to build a prosperous state than enabling the rich to invest more money in ventures across the globe. What California needs is still more students clustered in its Zellerbach Auditoriums, amazing their parents and poised to unleash their myriad talents on the world.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company