While most progressives agree on California’s seven propositions for the February ballot, Proposition 92 has allies taking different sides. The Bay Guardian says “yes,” while the SF Democratic Party says “no.” State Senator Carole Migden says “yes,” while Sheila Kuehl says “no.” And the 2 major unions that represent teachers are campaigning against each other. Prop 92 would reserve money for the state’s community colleges, but not the way that most progressives would prefer (tax increases.) Instead, it gives 10.5% of the state budget allocated for public education to community colleges. Student fees will also be lowered from $20 to $15 a credit. With yet another round of the Governor’s budget cuts, education will take a hit – but because community colleges are less sexy than K-12 or the UC system, they’ll get cut more than others. Which is criminal, because our state community college system is the only way for most adults to get an education.

The vast majority (70%) of Californians who attend college are enrolled in a community college. The average student is 28 years old and working full time, 60% are women, and 30% are Latino. Community colleges allow thousands to enter the middle class, as the average student’s income climbs from $25,000 to $47,000 within three years after getting their degree. For those who can’t get into the University of Calfornia (UC) or California State University (CSU), it is simply the only option.

But community colleges have been on the receiving end of a ripple effect of budget cuts. Schwarzenegger has so raised UC fees that our world-class higher education in California is – as far as I’m concerned – no longer public. Students shut out of UC can go to CSU, and if they can’t they go to community college. All 3 systems have faced cuts, and with the new fiscal crisis we are now told that education will get a 10% cut statewide.

Tired of always being on the short end of the stick, community college advocates have put Prop 92 on the ballot – which lowers student fees and reserves 10% of the state’s Prop 98 funds for community colleges. California voters passed Prop 98 in the 1980’s, which mandates a 40% set-aside of the state General Fund for K-14 education. Prop 92 splits the Prop 98 money, so that community colleges are guaranteed a piece of the pie.

Advocates for K-12 education are not thrilled, which is why the California Teachers’ Association opposes Prop 92. So does SEIU, which represents public school janitors and cafeteria workers. With the fiscal crisis, K-12 is also under attack – and the Governor’s even trying to waive the minimum 40% requirement education set-aside under Prop 98. Both groups need money, and “ballot-box” budgeting is generally not good policy.

But when Arnold and the Republicans twist the knife to starve education, it will be more palatable for Democrats to save K-12. It’s not as sexy for politicians to save community colleges, so they will be more vulnerable. That’s why most progressives (including the California Labor Federation) support Prop 92. The California Federation of Teachers, which represents many community college teachers, strongly supports it.

As the Legislative Analyst report shows, K-12 enrollment is expected to decline in the near future. Meanwhile, the young adult population (i.e., community college students) is expected to grow by 2-3% around the same time. While I certainly don’t mean to suggest that we cut K-12 education, giving a bigger share to community colleges sounds reasonable.

Is a budget set-aside the best way out of this mess? No. We must raise taxes for the rich, repeal Prop 13 (or at least exempt commercial and industrial property), and take other bold measures that would solve our state’s revenue problem. But all these proposals will be far more difficult to pass politically. In the meantime, making sure that community colleges get a piece of the – very small – pie of education funds is the right thing to do.

Finally, Prop 92 will lower student fees at community colleges to $15 per credit – from the current level of $20. This is somewhat controversial, because it would eliminate $70 million in revenue for community colleges. But the state had no student fees at all until 1984. And when the state legislature hiked fees in 2004 from $11 to $26 per unit (after Arnold repealed the car tax), 305,000 fewer students enrolled at community colleges.

Opponents of Prop 92 argue that even at $20 per unit, California has some of the lowest community college fees in the nation. That’s true, but we also have the highest cost of living. With escalating rents, gas prices and the cost of buying books, the state owes an obligation to its community college students to keep student fees low. We’ve raised UC fees to the point that it’s no longer public – community colleges should be the safety net.

Advocates of K-12 education have legitimate concerns with Prop 92, but the problem is systemic. Until the Governor realizes we must raise revenue through higher taxes, scarce public resources will have to fight for crumbs. And because community colleges are the best option for millions of young adults, and it will be less politically palatable to protect their funding during hard times, a budget set-aside is unfortunately necessary.