Timing is everything. Although he gets points for aiming high, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty’s ambitious idea to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make college free for more Californians is unrealistic, especially this year.
President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans likely will slash spending on social programs and plan to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act, steps that could shift huge costs to the state and force deep cuts.
As detailed first in the Los Angeles Times, McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, aspires to provide free community college for first-year students, and hopes to eradicate the need for student loans for nearly 400,000 students in the California State University and University of California systems.
McCarty is correct that California’s public colleges are integral to this state’s past and future success. But as much as The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board supports public colleges, California has multiple priorities, from health care, parks and public schools to roads and paying down debt.
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The buoyant stock market could result in a tax revenue windfall this year. But legislators would be wise to see one-time money for what it is and use it for one-time expenses. They could, for example, pay down pension debt for school employees.
If legislators want to help college students, they also could ease laws that slow construction of low-cost student-oriented housing, or perhaps use California’s financial clout to find ways to lower student loan interest rates.
California’s community colleges are gems. But they already are bargains, offering students the lowest per-unit costs of any community college system in the country, according to Kevin Cook, a researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
California’s higher education spending accounts for 12 percent of the state budget, down from 18 percent 40 years ago, PPIC reports. But California has increased per-college-student funding by 15 percent since the start of the economic recovery in 2010, far more than the national increase of 2 percent. Pennsylvania and Texas actually cut funding by about 20 percent.
McCarty and other Assembly Democrats have seized on a populist notion championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders during last year’s presidential campaign. We don’t doubt that the issue resonates with the more liberal Democratic base. Certainly, everyone likes free stuff.
But at a time when California can expect little help from Washington, Assembly Democrats risk disillusioning the public by promising too much.