Accountability and Funding: The Misguided Approach of SB721

Legislative and External Policy Committee Member

As the need for greater accountability in state funding continues to resonate with the Legislature, bills like SB 721 (Lowenthal, 2012) will gain greater support and traction, causing headaches for community colleges that already must produce numerous accountability reports. Specifically, SB 721, introduced on February 18, 2011, would, as stated in the State Senate’s SB 721 Fact Sheet1,

  • Establish statewide goals for guiding budget and policy decisions in higher education.
  • Require that the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) convene a working group to develop and recommend specific metrics for measuring progress toward these goals.
  • Require the LAO, beginning in 2014 and as part of the annual budget process, to annually report on and present an assessment of progress toward the statewide goals and recommendations for Legislative action.

The bill also indicated the Legislature’s intent to identify and define appropriate metrics and interim targets for the achievement of the statewide goals by 2025 and required that the LAO convene a working group to develop and, in consultation with the Department of Finance, recommend the specific metrics by January 2013. It declared the Legislature’s intent to formally adopt these metrics, to promote progress toward them via budget and policy decisions, and to ensure the effective and efficient use of whatever funding was available to higher education. The bill required the working group to develop at least 6 and no more than 12 measures derived from publicly available data sources and required that these measures be able to be disaggregated and reported by gender, race and ethnicity, income, age group, and full-time and part-time enrollment, where appropriate and applicable. The LAO was also directed to include the Department of Finance, higher education segment representatives, and national experts in the development of the metrics.

With no end in sight for state budget deficits, one thing is certain: the state will continue to feel pressure to issue more stringent accountability metrics on public higher education to determine state funding. Indeed, the pressure has been on for some time. According to the state Senate’s Fact Sheet, “The Senate and the Legislature have been developing, supporting and refining proposals to create greater accountability for higher education since 2002. SB 721 reflects the latest evolution of these efforts.”2 Among the reports cited by the state Senate as “extensive work being done nationally to support [California’s] state efforts in this regard” is the Lumina Foundation’s report on college costs, titled “Buying College: What Consumers Need To Know.”3 This report clearly indicates the Lumina Foundation’s view that higher education’s purpose is to produce degrees for student “consumers”—with its attendant problematic association with corporate retail industry—whose only use or value of their degrees is to cash them in like tickets for appropriately-paying jobs. And in citing this report, the state Senate apparently shares Lumina’s view. Faculty need no explanation of the problematic nature of this view of higher education. Whereas current and prospective higher education students have every right to agree with the Lumina Foundation, for the state legislative bodies to publicly do so should raise concerns about the potential impact of this viewpoint on California public higher education institutions’ ability to maintain high standards of academic integrity and intellectual freedom.

The most alarming aspect of SB 721 is that it vests the Legislative Analyst’s Office with sole responsibility for establishing statewide goals for higher education budget and policy planning, creating of metrics to measure completion of these goals, and assessing the progress made toward the goals. In this bill, leadership on these efforts from those inside higher education, most notably faculty, is blatantly absent. Making public higher education report to state politicians rather than those who are deeply engaged in delivering education is a reality that we have to deal with, since we are accountable to the Legislature for our funding. Yet, the Legislature should also recognize the importance of turning to experts in the field to determine metrics of success and how to assess them.

Governor Brown noted this misdirected placement of responsibility in his terse explanation for his veto of SB 721: “Questions about who should measure, what to measure, and how to measure what is learned in college are way too important to be delegated to the Legislative Analyst” (September 14, 2012 memo to the state Senate). The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges strongly agrees with Governor Brown: Delegation of these important questions solely to the Legislative Analyst would be inappropriate. The UCs, CSUs, and CCCs already have systems of accountability between the systems’ governance structures and the state Legislature. California community colleges currently engage in annual ARCC (Accountability Reporting for the Community Colleges) reports, which Boards of Trustees are required to approve. Due to SB 1456 (Lowenthal, 2012), the Student Success Act of 2012, ARCC will become the scorecard in Spring 2013, and these scorecards will be posted publicly on college websites. Having the Legislative Analyst’s Office take over the assessment of colleges’ success makes little sense.

University of California Legislative Director Nadia Leal-Carrillo4 explained the UC leadership’s support of SB 721, claiming that they predicted that the accountability measures produced by the Legislative Analyst Office would “complement … rather than duplicate” the UC’s own internally developed accountability standards. The UC leadership appears to be gambling on the belief that supporting efforts to make the state more closely scrutinize and tie more accountability measures to higher education budgeting decisions will stabilize state funding for UCs and possibly silence detractors of public education who claim that the state is not effectively reining in higher education spending and expenses. The UC Academic Senate and faculty do not agree with the position taken by their leadership and caution against accountability measures that do not include faculty in the development of such metrics.

With the passage of Prop 30, minor relief from financial strain will be realized. Given this new revenue source, the Legislature may decide to reduce funding to the community colleges, which would create another setback. Also disappointing is the comparative absence of legislative attention to and support of what constitutes successful matriculation services and the rates of student access to these services, as well as pedagogical practices such as learning communities, small student to teacher ratios, and opportunities for student intellectual exploration and engagement that have demonstrated improved outcomes of student success. Again and again, educational institutions are being blamed for the decline of student success and are accused of costing too much when in fact the decline correlates directly to the decline of government revenues, the slashing of funding to public schools, and California’s tumbling in state rankings from the highest in per-student K-12 spending to among the lowest in the nation. Not surprisingly in light of this situation, well over half of all entering community college students require pre-college level coursework in order to be prepared to succeed in transferable level courses. Compounding this problem is the fact that severe cuts to student services means that only a minority of students have access to services such academic counseling, tutoring, and other supports that are crucial to success in setting and achieving educational goals, including successful employment. Problems regarding any lack of student success will not be solved by simply forcing more accountability without addressing the root causes of these problems, and indeed such an approach will even aggravate them. Public educational institutions will be more hamstrung in their efforts to improve student performance if they are forced to divert more resources to the accounting of student success rather than to the teaching and learning that leads to it.

1SB 721 (Lowenthal) As Amended January 4, 2012 Postsecondary Education Statewide Goals FACT SHEET” California State Senate. October 12, 2012
2SB 721 (Lowenthal) As Amended January 4, 2012 Postsecondary Education Statewide Goals FACT SHEET California State Senate. October 12, 2012
3Morgan, Julie Margetta. “Buying College: What Consumers Need to Know.” Center for American Progress. March 14, 2011 October 12, 2012.
4Leal-Carrillo, Nadia. Letter to Marty Block, Chair, Assembly Higher Education Committee, dated June 15, 2012. October 12, 2012