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Fighting California’s Tuition Hikes

Making ends meet is a fight for Valencia Henley, an ethnic studies major graduating from California State University, Sacramento this spring.

“Each semester I have faced being kicked out of classes due not to my grades but to being late paying student fees,” she said. “At times my professors have let me stay in their classes until I can pay. Many of my friends are also struggling this way.”

A former CSUS professor concurs with Henley. She lent students money to pay their school fees. Then the professor carried those costs as her VISA debt.

Olgalilia Ramirez is the director of governmental relations with the California State Student Association. Rising education fees “are a great concern for middle- and low-income students,” she said. Her debt from attending CSUS since 2000 will be $35,000 upon graduating with a master’s degree in sociology this spring, said Ramirez.

And fees will rise 10 percent at CSU and eight percent at UC in 2008-2009 under the budget of GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Current resident undergraduate fees are about $7,000 at UC and at CSU $3,000, respectively, said the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office. These amounts vary by campus.

News that inflation has been rising at a three percent annual rate nationally since 2002 is cold comfort for CSU and UC system students. They have seen their fees nearly double over the past six years, according to Tuition Relief Now, a student-led coalition. The Berkeley-based and all-volunteer group has crafted a solution to the problem of escalating public university fees: qualifying the College Affordability Act of 2008 for the November election.

Henley and scores of unpaid students, parents, and university advocates representing a total of 30 CSU and UC schools are hard at work to collect 434,000 signatures of registered voters by mid-April to put the initiative on the ballot. If they succeed and voters approve the measure, students at the state’s public institutions of higher education would gain. The math of the proposed initiative is straightforward.

Beginning in 2008-2009, the measure would freeze fees for five years for resident undergraduates at CSU schools. Their UC counterparts would have to await adoption of a fee freeze by the system’s Board of Regents.

But won’t hundreds of thousands of students paying less to attend California’s public universities increase the $14.5 billion deficit in the state general fund? That’s the shortfall which the governor proposes to shrink with budget cuts across the board, including slashing nine percent from higher education spending in 2008-2009.

The proposed five-year freeze would reduce revenue from students’ fees by about $1 billion, or one percent of the state general fund. Yet the state would more than make up for that by raising the tax rate one percent on personal income of $1 million and up, the top bracket, to a rate of 11.3 percent. This surcharge on California millionaires would add nearly $2 billion a year to the general fund budget, beginning in 2009-2010.

Senate Democrats chose Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento to replace President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland after voters defeated Proposition 93 recently. (The measure would have reduced state lawmakers’ terms by two years. However, incumbents such as Perata could have served a total of a dozen years in a combination of terms in the Assembly or Senate, or 12 years in a single house.)

Crucially, Steinberg spearheaded an increase of the personal income tax on California millionaires of $1.5 billion to fund mental health services, which voters approved in 2004. Surely, the state’s millionaires do not cheer another tax increase. That would cut their consumption and redirect it to public university education. Further, if state voters approve such a proposal for the benefit of CSU and UC students, what is to stop further tax hikes on the well-heeled for other public services? Why, such government intervention could spread to other states.

According to the LAO, 60 percent of the new millionaire tax would fill the void left by the freeze of student fees at CSU and UC schools. The remaining tax revenue would flow to K-14 school spending. After the CSU and UC fees are unfrozen in year six, fee increases could not exceed the annual percentage change in the California Consumer Price Index. That would create some price stability for students where little now exists.

Tuition Relief Now has funding for the proposal in part from the Greenlining Action Fund. It’s the political wing of the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, which calls itself a “multi-ethnic public policy research and advocacy institute.”

Go to www.tuitionreliefnow.org.

SETH SANDRONSKY lives and writes in Sacramento. He can be reached at: ssandronsky@yahoo.com

 

 

 

 

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Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com

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