As the public bemoans increasing partisan rancor in local, state and federal government, a new Political Action Committee (PAC) has quietly grown in prominence in California that is being driven by both Democrats and Republicans — showing a bipartisan way forward through an issue they can all agree on: funding higher education.
Former State Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman and former Democratic Congressmember and State Assemblymember Mel Levine are the “odd couple” as co-chairs of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education (CCPHE), but to them, there is nothing weird about teaming up for an issue that is of paramount importance to keep California prominent in the nation and the world.
“There’s been an erosion of support for public higher education,” Levine said in a sit down with UCLA. “Candidly, I don’t fully understand why. Public higher education is absolutely indispensable to accomplish any number of important goals that the state of California has.” Particularly, he added, higher education is important for its role in social mobility and as the engine to educate a workforce for the economy of tomorrow.
“I think the public perception just lately has been very negative on universities and part of our goal it to try and turn that around, because they are the solution to our future,” Ackerman added while sitting next to Levine.
The Coalition was formed in 2011 as a response to state funding for higher education that has declined over four decades by a third, as a percentage of the State General Fund. Per-student state funding is down my almost two-thirds for the University of California and about 25 percent for California State University.
“While I was in the legislature and after I got out of the legislature, one thing I saw was a continuing cutback of funds to higher education,” Ackerman said. “And a number of us got concerned about that and decided to form an organization to see if we could improve that situation.”
CCPHE comprises two main components to achieve its goals. Firstly, it has a fundraising arm to support candidates willing to make higher education one of their top issues, and secondly it has an educational side to inform the public of the good higher education is doing in its state and communities.
“The goals are probably the same both short term and long term: to get more state funding for higher education,” Ackerman said. “I think the state has totally turned their back on higher education and I think that’s a very negative thing for the economy and everything else. Our main goal is to get more public funding, more state funding, for all three segments.”
Beyond that, Levine and Ackerman said they lobby to give the higher education system, particularly the UC (both are graduates of UC Berkeley), more autonomy and to decrease the amount of partisan “micro-managing” the state legislature inflicts on it.
While each segment (University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges) of higher education has its own set of advocates, and even each university, one of the achievements, and a main goal of the CCPHE was to unify the three segments and use their collective power together.
Back in his days in the legislature, Levine said the segments competed too much to their detriment. “One of the most welcome successes that we believe we’ve been a part of is working with the three segments in a way that they really do collaborate and reinforce each other. When they go to Sacramento, there is mutual support, and that clearly enhances their messaging.”
To that end, CCPHE has hosted multiple events bringing together the chancellors of all three segments to meet with influencers and PAC donors. The money raised has gone toward creating a de facto higher education caucus in the legislature. “There is now a cadre of strong supporters in the legislature who we work with and support politically,” Levine said, noting about a dozen legislators. “This is a real measure of success.”
Come the June 2018 primary, the PAC will have chosen a slate of candidates who have shown the willingness to put higher education first. “If legislators don’t make public higher education one of their top priorities, it just won’t get to the top of the list and funding won’t be there,” Levine said. Added Ackerman, “Most will say it is a priority, but they don’t put it at the top.”
The Coalition wants to step in where the universities and community colleges have to bow out — direct campaign contributions, which the public institutions are now allowed to participate in. “They couldn’t be as aggressive as someone from the outside,” Ackerman noted.
And the cause is more important than ever. “There was a time a number of years ago where it was said, in order to obtain a job to support your family, you needed a high school education,” Levine said. “Now, in order to perform many, many of the jobs in our information economy, you need at least a college education — and a high quality education — and often post secondary training. To an individual who wants to support his or her family, having a college education is absolutely essential.”
To help the cause, advocates can visit YesToHigherEd.org for opportunities to donate and participate in events. “We would welcome, encourage and warmly appreciate anybody reaching out to us on the website,” Levine said. “We would love to have you involved. This is an area we can make a difference where the University cannot.”