California Currents

Survey’s strong support for state colleges could guide action by Gov.-elect Newsom

(Photo by Larry Gordon, EdSource)

Most California voters support what would be a landmark change to guarantee minimum levels of state funding for public universities, much like the baseline of support K-12 schools and community colleges receive, according to a new survey.

California’s K-12 schools and community colleges are guaranteed about 40 percent of state general fund revenue through Proposition 98, an initiative approved by voters in 1988. But there is no such guarantee for the University of California or California State University systems.

A majority of voters also approved of a proposal to roll back limits on commercial property taxes enacted under Proposition 13 to provide increased funding for higher education, the survey found.

That public support, combined with a rosy budget outlook, could bolster Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom’s plans to enact changes that would affect California’s higher education systems long into the future.

“This survey gives the next governor permission to be bold,” said Monica Lozano, president of the College Futures Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that promotes greater access to higher education and helped fund the survey. “It says, ‘We’re ready.’”

The survey was conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan statewide research and policy organization. Lozano discussed its findings in San Francisco on Nov. 16 with PPIC President Mark Baldassare.

Newsom announced that Lozano, a former chairwoman of the UC Board of Regents and trustee of the University of Southern California, is one of 25 leaders who will serve as “ambassadors” of his transition. Newsom said in a statement that the ambassadors, most of whom are elected officials, will be charged with searching “for innovative ideas and talent across this state.”

The survey was conducted between Oct. 27 and Nov. 5, just before Newsom cruised to a widely expected victory on Election Day over Republican John Cox.

Nearly 3 in 4 Californians in the survey said higher education should be a high or very high priority for the next governor. Large majorities gave the state’s three systems of higher education positive reviews and said they are important for the future of the state.

The findings could help the state’s public colleges and universities as they seek well over $1 billion worth of combined new funding in Newsom’s first budget. Just over half of survey respondents, 56 percent, said current state funding for higher education is not sufficient.

A budget plan for the next fiscal year, recently passed by the UC Board of Regents, seeks $377.6 million in new state funding for the 10-campus system. The CSU Board of Trustees approved a spending plan that requests $456 million for the 23-campus California State University system. And the proposed budget for the 115-college California Community College system, which its board of governors approved last month, requests $488 million in new funding.

Newsom, who as lieutenant governor sat on the UC and CSU systems’ boards, made education a central piece of his campaign for governor. He touted a sweeping — and expensive — “cradle-to-career” platform that pledged to fund services from prenatal care through college.

The survey indicated widespread support for one piece of Newsom’s higher education plans: 80 percent of Californians said they are in favor of the state providing two free years of community college, an idea he has embraced. Nearly half of all community college students already pay no tuition under the system’s College Promise Grant.

A roaring California economy is helping bring those ideas closer to reality and brightening the outlook for higher education funding. A forecast for the coming fiscal year released in November week showed the state’s budget “in remarkably good shape,” according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, with an estimated $14.8 billion in additional funding available for the 2019-20 budget.

But voters in the survey also supported an idea that would make universities less dependent on the strength of each year’s budget: 61 percent approved of a plan that would guarantee a minimum funding level for the UC and CSU systems.

Lozano said the yearly fluctuations of California’s budget create uncertainty for students and their families, as universities often raise tuition if state funding falls short of their requests. If that funding was more stable, families could have a better sense of how much they can expect tuition to cost each year, she said.

Support for guaranteeing minimum higher education funding was highest among Democrats, but majorities of independents and Republicans also backed the idea.

“There is strong support for creating that certainty,” Baldassare said.

Voters also supported rolling back Proposition 13’s limits on commercial property taxes — while keeping in place the law’s limits on residential taxes — to provide additional higher education funding. The question is expected to come to voters on the 2020 ballot. In the PPIC survey, 56 percent of likely voters favored the change, while 40 percent were opposed.

The poll was made up of 1,703 surveys of adult California residents of whom 1095 were described as likely voters. The survey, conducted by cellphone and landline, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Story originally published by EdSource.