Most of the focus on the financial crisis facing California's education system has been directed toward K-12. But an equally grave funding shortfall faces California's community colleges whose budgets could be cut by 10 percent or more.
That translates to enrolling 400,000 fewer students next fall, slashing thousands of classes and cutting hundreds from staffs in an effort to maintain the quality of education offered to its students, many of whom aspire to attend a four-year university. The state's 112 community colleges could be asked to absorb an $800 million reduction for the next school year, which could raise fees from $26 to $36 per unit or higher if a Sacramento budget compromise isn't reached.
During a telephone news briefing, California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott said the cuts would be a tragedy for students and a deep blow to the state's economy.
According to Scott: "Students seeking to transfer to Cal State and the University of California will be denied access, those students unable to get into Cal State and UC and who desperately need to get into a community college will be denied, as well as those who are out of work and are coming to us for retraining. We will do the best we can, but we will not be serving the needs of students or meeting our education goals."
Throughout California, the news from community colleges is grim.
For example, Long Beach City College will cut 222 course sections this fall, turn away 1,000 full-time students who can't get classes and lose more than 30 staff positions, President Eloy Oakley said.
"Given the scenario now before us, we will reduce our enrollment back to 1999-2000 levels, which is a significant defunding, particularly at a time when demand at Long Beach City College has never been greater," Oakley explained.
At four Sacramento-area colleges in the Los Rios Community College District, Chancellor Brice W. Harris projected that about 18,000 students will be denied enrollment this fall — and more could be rejected depending on the size of the cuts.
In San Diego, Chancellor Constance Carroll estimated that the three-college San Diego Community College District will shed more than 1,000 classes and turn away 20,000 students.
San Diego, despite its 10 percent unemployment rate, needs jobs for nursing and other high-skilled professions that students will not be able to train for. Unless there's a last-minute budget breakthrough, summer sessions, whose schedules must be completed soon, are likely to be decimated.
As for the students, they are keeping their fingers crossed, but also realize that the hour is late.
Recently, scores of students at Los Angeles-area community colleges held a protest "die-in" to bring attention to their plight.
The students lay in rows on the pavement and held black poster board tombstones with the inscription: "Here Lies California Education."
California is in a horrible Catch-22 situation. If the state is ever going to pull itself out of the morass it's fallen into, California will need a well-educated populace. But for those who are motivated to go beyond K-12 in an effort to become part of a productive society, every step in the process becomes harder with each passing year.
And it's important to note that community colleges are more than just about "transfer." They help K-12 graduates make up what they didn't learn the first time around, develop language skills for English learners, establish lifelong adult learning patterns and train unemployed people with new job skills.
Without a strong community college system, California can't expect to regain its position as a leader in the national economy.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at email@example.com.