Broken Butterflies: The Promise of Equal Opportunity in California Public Postsecondary Education


On a recent release, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams describes a mendacious lover's speech: Choking on your unplanned words/Coughing up your lies/Tumbling from your mouth a flurry/Of broken butterflies.1 This striking image of abused and damaged beauty seems peculiarly apt when discussing the promise of California's public postsecondary education: In our public documents, we have coughed up the promise of equity; in reality, we have delivered broken butterflies. As in Ms. Williams' song, the issue is whether-and how-the damage can be healed.

AB 1725 and the Master Plan expressed the lofty ideal that every citizen who could benefit from it would have access to a high quality postsecondary education. The Legislature then established (or continued) a funding pattern for the three public segments that systematically discriminates against those students who might be expected to attend community colleges-i.e., those from the lower socioeconomic stratum of society-and that systematically favors those from the higher strata, those who might be expected to attend the CSUs and the UCs. It is time that we call attention to this breaker of butterflies, this discriminatory funding pattern that gives the lie to the promise of equity. We must label discriminatory funding for what it is, and clearly identify it, not as a fiscal issue, but as moral one.

urrently the funding per fulltime equivalent student (FTES) for each of the segments is:

UC: $25,000
CSU: $11,000
CCC: $4,700

Had we all started out with equitable funding and simply drifted toward the current figures as a result of things like differentiation of function (UC trains graduate students, for example; we don't) that would be one story. The Joint Committee of the Legislature responsible for the 1989 review of the Master Plan, California Faces, California's Future: Education for Citizenship in a Multicultural Democracy, didn't think that story would be an accurate one. They explicitly pointed out that the funding inequities could not be explained by differentiation of function.2 We can add substance to the Joint Committee's claim if we trace the funding pattern back in time. If we go back to 1965-66, five years after the Master Plan was adopted, we find that UC was funded at $2937 per FTES, CSU at $1256, and the CCCs at $554. The pattern over the past 35 years is shown in the samples in the graph on the next page.3

There is not much drift here. The CCCs have received an average of 49% of CSU's per student apportionment and 21% of UC's. This is evidence that the disparity in funding is determined, not by the differing functions of the three segments, but by assumptions about the nature of the students expected to attend each segment and a tacit commitment to maintaining historical distinctions of social and economic class.

The "tacit" in the last sentence is important. I am not saying that this commitment has been made consciously (at least not by all parties). I do not believe, for example, that legislators have sat down and concluded that it would be best if students from lower socio-economic strata would be better off staying where they are. Yet the historical evidence makes it clear that the commitment has been made. How then to explain it?

My surmise is that we might begin to explain this, as so much in American culture, by an appeal to the phenomenon of ambivalence. The conflicting impulses in this case are, on the one hand, a "democratic" impulse, which would see all people realize their full potential, and, on the other hand, an "elitist" impulse, which would maintain the status-quo, with its distinctions of economic and social class.

In terms of our images of ourselves, we have no problem recognizing the generous spirit of the democratic impulse, with its insight that each human being is a center of value deserving of full actualization. It is more difficult to acknowledge in ourselves the contrary, elitist spirit, which would preserve for each of us what we already have, and would discourage-or even punish-both in ourselves and others, aspirations to transcend the bounds of one's inherited status. There is, however, compelling evidence that this tendency runs deep in all of us. It is perhaps seen most dramatically when we look at those who have the least, whose lot seems to be one primarily of pain and suffering, but who nonetheless cling to their condition as if it were a treasure. It is, for example, a psycho-sociological clich that those who have been abused in childhood tend to seek out abusive relationships in adulthood-relationships in which they then remain, or, if they should escape them, then duplicate in the next relationship they enter.4 Such behavior speaks volumes of the human "stake in the familiar." Human beings, it suggests, would rather suffer than to change. We seem to perceive that it is both easier and safer to remain with what we know than to deal with the unfamiliar.

Another factor involved, perhaps, in the acceptance of blatant discrimination in the pattern of our funding of education is an inclination to "blame the victim"-a form of social Darwinism -even when the victim is ourselves. If I have emerged from high school with something considerably less than academic distinction, there is much in my environment to tell me that the fault is my own. I had the same opportunities, it is argued, as my academically successful colleagues, I simply wasted them. Never mind that the obstacles to my academic success may have been Herculean; this is easy to overlook in the analysis of my "failure." The result can be that I and those around me accept as a given that any institution that will now give me another chance should be less than first-rate. The first-rate institutions are seen to be the just deserts of the students who made the most of their opportunities the first time around. The institutions with the antiquated science labs, the outdated technology, the peeling paint and the failing air conditioning-with the years of remedial classes, inadequate resources for remediation, and inadequate counseling resources-with peers as tutors, no money for learning communities and interdisciplinary classes, and impoverished libraries-with faculty who teach too many students in too many classes, who have no resources for professional growth, and who, with their administrators, are perpetually having to make unacceptable choices about which features of a quality education to sacrifice in order to offer any education at all-these are the institutions that the "slackers" who didn't make it the first time deserve.

There is also, by way of explaining the widespread acceptance of our discriminatory funding, simple ignorance of what is really going on. There are probably few legislators and fewer members of the general public who are aware of the per-student funding disparities in the higher education segments. And those who are aware are probably telling themselves that the community colleges are a bargain, because they do "the job" with so much less. And, yes, we are a bargain, because in fact we do a wonderful job with what we've got. But the plain fact is that you simply cannot offer the same level of educational opportunity to a student who is funded at $4,700 as you can to one who is funded at $25,000. To suppose otherwise is willful blindness.

We are doing a job, but not the job. The job of turning, not the top 121/2% (UC) nor the top 331/3 % (CSU), but the top 100% of our applicants into potential UC and CSU graduates, into skilled workers with the capacity for lifelong learning and advancement in their fields, into reflective, competent, compassionate members of their communities with the will and the resources to participate effectively and constructively in democratic processes, is going to take a lot more money than we have ever gotten. For so many of our students, it is a miracle that they have come to us at all. And then, too often, that miracle is wasted because we lack the resources to keep them and get them to their goals. This is the perpetual tragedy behind the pattern of disparate funding of higher education in California.

Finally, we have to face the possibility that the decision to reward the children of the rich and punish the children of the poor is deliberate. In his novel, World's End, T. C. Boyle delivers a simple and brutal portrayal of the essence of human society. Wealth and power, Boyle shows us, are the ultimate determinants of social reality; against wealth and power, ideals of justice and conceptions of right and wrong count, in the end, for nothing. We come away from Boyle's novel hoping that he is wrong, but suspecting that that hope is its own form of willful blindness. If there's only so much room at the top, why would those at the top invite the whole world up?

What is clear is that we don't have the option of assuming that Boyle is right. The funding pattern of higher education in California is elitist and discriminatory, and is thus unjust. It is wrong. The issue of equity is a moral issue; it is not a fiscal one. We must attempt to make that inequity apparent to our leaders and to the public. We will assume that they do not know that injustice is being done. Only if it's brought to their attention, and things don't change, will we then know that Boyle was right. In that case, we can only hope to heal the butterflies by wresting power from those who now hold it.

1 "Broken Butterflies," from the album, Essence, by Lucinda Williams. c 2001 Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (BMI)/Lucy Jones Music (BMI). All Rights administered by Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. Warner Bros. Publications U.S. INC., Miami, FL. 33014

2 Joint Committee for the Review of the Master Plan for Higher Education, "California Faces. California's Future: Education for Citizenship in a Multicultural Democracy." 1989, pp. 62-63.

3 California Postsecondary Education Commission, Fiscal Profiles, 2000, November 2000, Commission report 00-7. The numbers for 2000-01 were estimates.

4 That this is a clich is confirmed by the large number of psychology texts which assert this syndrome as fact without offering any support from research. Such support does exist, however. See, for example, Torr and Swisher, Violence Against Women, Greenhaven Press, 1999, San Diego, California; and Simons et al., "Explaining Women's Double Jeopardy: Factors that Mediate the Association between Harsh Treatment as a Child and Violence by a Husband," Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 55 (3), 1993, pp. 713-723. Thanks to Teresa Jacob of the Grossmont College Psychology Department for the research.