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A Dangerous Downgrading Of Education

California, land of the possible.

So it used to be: the state where optimism was policy - and the policy worked.

But not today.

Two Republican governors 50 years apart define the change.

Earl Warren was an optimist whose political method was to appeal to the best in human nature. He himself had risen from poverty by way of the University of California - which then had nominal tuition for state students. He later worked to make that kind of opportunity available to all Californians. He was a tough prosecutor before he was governor, but he also sought to reduce crime by easing social inequalities.

Pete Wilson first made his political mark as a progressive mayor of San Diego. But as governor, he increasingly has turned to the politics of division, appealing to the anger of voters on issues such as immigration and affirmative action. His three-strikes law is making California the world capital of incarceration.

Education was a key aspect of California’s spectacular growth in the decades after World War II. Warren built large numbers of schools to keep up with the rapid rise in the state’s population. The rich sent their children to public schools.

Today, however, California is near the bottom of state school rankings for average number of pupils per teacher. In spending per student, it had fallen to 36th among the states by 1992. Private schools are booming.

Higher education also was a priority of Warren and his successor, Democrat Pat Brown. The many campuses of the University of California and California State University made up the best public higher education system in the country. And it was all virtually free.

In the last five years, however, fees have quadrupled in the state system so it no longer provides the same ladder of upward mobility. And despite the higher costs to students, the universities are pinched for funds because state support has been severely limited.

Meanwhile, the growth industry in California today is prisons. As recently as 15 years ago, the state spent six times as much on higher education as on prisons. But last year, the prison budget was larger - and the disparity is going to grow.

It now takes about 10 percent of the state budget to operate the prisons. According to a study by the Rand Corp., that percentage will rise to 18 percent six years from now. Given mandatory spending for other things under state budget rules, that will leave just 1 percent for the universities.

Prison guards, who have a powerful union, now earn more than teachers in public schools. In fact, a guard at San Quentin has the same annual salary - about $45,000 - as an assistant professor at the University of California.

Seventeen new prisons have been built in the last 15 years. Fifteen more will be needed by the year 2000 to house, among others, the flood of inmates serving 25 years to life under the three-strikes law. The construction cost will be around $5 billion.

You could not have a starker statement of a society’s outlook than the figures for education and prisons in California.

Of course, crime is a serious problem. But political leaders should be thinking, urgently, about ways to deal with the problem other than incarcerating non-violent criminals and holding convicts through harmless old age.

A study by the California Higher Education Policy Center, published last year by the Public Agenda Foundation, quoted a California businessman.

“In the 1950s and ‘60s,” he said, “California had the greatest educational system that had ever existed on the face of the Earth. Today, I will pay more tuition for my child to go to third grade in private school than I paid for college and law school combined. I personally don’t care because I am rich. I got a chance to be rich because education was available at virtually no cost. But what about the family who is situated today the way mine was? You create a lack of promise that has widespread implications.”

And the downgrading of education is dangerous for a reason beyond its effect on class divisions. Education is the crucial element for success in the new world economy. For California to fall behind the Asian states that make education a priority is to blight its future.

What happens in California, it used to be said, is a preview of what will happen to all of America. We have to hope that no longer is true.


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