President Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Jefferson’s wise admonition has been ignored.  According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), 72% of incoming students to our California Community Colleges need remedial instruction in the English language and writing and 83% in math.   Even here in Placer County, 49% of the incoming students at Sierra College need remedial courses. The value of a high school diploma is declining faster than A-Rod’s fan base.

The key problem is a “State Knows Best” policy in which legislators in Sacramento, influenced by their arrogant ideology and the lure of special interest money, pass new state mandates every year on community colleges. Reading the ever-lengthening Education Code is more painful than watching a Justin Bieber concert.  To go along with our smart phones, why don’t we enact smart 21st Century reforms that emphasize local control, transparency of performance measures, accountability and putting the educational needs of students first?

A good example of the counterproductive “State Knows Best” problem is the “50% law.”  This law, which is more than 60 years old, mandates that every community college district spend a minimum of 50% of its educational expenses on the salaries and benefits of classroom instructors. This law survives after more than 60 years despite the lack of any evidence that the arbitrary 50% spending mandate improves the academic performance and skill levels of college students. This ossified law only ties the hands of locally elected community college board members in allocating limited tax dollars to best meet the academic and job-training needs of today’s students. Sixty years ago we didn’t have smart classrooms and online distance learning. Sixty years ago we didn’t have the more competitive global economy and the need for higher and technical skill levels. Sixty years ago we didn’t have the “new normal” of high unemployment for young men and women and massive student debt.

Earlier this year, the California Legislature had an opportunity to take a positive step forward in reforming the 50% law. Assemblyman Scott Wilk, a former community college board member, introduced AB 806, which would give community colleges more flexibility to hire counselors and librarians. Right now, because of the 50% law, in order to hire one counselor or librarian, the community college must hire an additional classroom instructor at equal pay regardless of need. That doubles the cost of hiring a counselor or librarian. That is absurd.

Recent reports by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy and the LAO found that the 50% law is an impediment to ensuring that students receive the services they need.   For instance, a student without access to a counselor may take the wrong classes and waste time and money and have higher loan debt. Sierra College President William Duncan argued forcefully in the Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing in favor of AB 806 and how the bill could help students. Unfortunately, AB 806 was killed in the committee in a party-line vote of 5 to 4, with 8 votes needed for passage.   Eight legislators on the committee, “profiles in cowardice,” didn’t even bother to vote.

The battle to rebuild and strengthen California, a place where equal opportunity flourishes, will only be won if citizens use their power to reform the dysfunctional California Legislature and shift more responsibility of delivering vital governmental services to local government.   More transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility are the keys to the California Comeback.