Alpert calls for higher taxes, lower tuition

    State Sen. Dede Alpert (D-San Diego) called Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget a “broken promise” and told a group of approximately 20 students that California needed higher income taxes for the wealthy to keep college affordable.

    Speaking at an A.S.-sponsored forum about the future of higher education on April 23 at the Institute of the Americas, Alpert said legislators could not risk a further trimming of already-meager funding for public universities and colleges.

    “I think we’ve reached a point with the cuts that we’ve made last year, the cuts this year and the increases in tuition where, this year, we could potentially deny access and we could actually hurt quality,” she said. “We’ve got to gather up support for people to say that there are things so important that they’re willing to pay more money to make them happen.”

    Alpert said she supported efforts to reduce fluctuations in tuition fees caused by bust-and-boom economic cycles and to allow families to anticipate their education costs, including proposals to cap fee increases at the rate of inflation during students’ years in college.

    She also expressed her support for a state-funded universal preschool program for 4- and 5-year-olds as a way to build equity in public education and better opportunities for low-income families, though Alpert said she doubted California would be able to afford the program in the near future.

    Alpert criticized the governor’s plan to cut Cal Grant financial aid by $5,000 for students attending private universities and his proposal to redirect UC-eligible students to community colleges, with tuition paid by the state, saying that the community college system did not have room for them.

    She called the governor’s rollback of vehicle license fees a “selfish” idea, “giving away four billion dollars in revenue.” However, Alpert dismissed the move a result of Schwarzenegger’s political inexperience and said that he was willing to consider alternatives to higher education cuts.

    “[Schwarzenegger] has proven himself to be open to new ideas,” Alpert said. “I think he is just starting to learn the impacts of some of his choices, and I think he is open to changing his mind.”

    Alpert also portrayed funding for higher education as a benefit for the state’s budget deficits and a way to attract new commerce.

    “The most business-friendly [thing] you could do is provide more money for education,” she said. “The different UC campuses have really become centers for economic development, as well as places for students to learn, so it’s actually a smart way for people to invest money. It’s a benefit for the state in terms of tax revenue, and it’s a benefit for the people of California.”

    Saying that the passage of voter initiatives limiting property taxes and mandating funding levels for primary and secondary education had tied the hands of legislators, Alpert proposed creating two new upper-income tax brackets as an alternative to educational-spending cuts.

    “When I talk to people with those kind of incomes, most of them say to me, ‘I would gladly do that,’” Alpert said. “They won’t do that for everything, but to fund higher education, I think they are absolutely willing to pay more money because they recognize how important it is.”

    Students present at the event also expressed their own thoughts on issues related to education, some recounting their experiences as community college transfers.

    Third-year computer science and engineering graduate student Sean O’Rourke spoke about his frustrations with a “terrible quality of instruction” from faculty members more interested in conducting research than teaching. As a teaching assistant, O’Rourke said TAs felt pressure from the computer science and engineering department to “jack up curves” in order to keep grades up for unqualified students, comparing the level and quality of education to “a high school with a think tank bolted on top.”

    Alpert said she worked on and supported efforts to direct more emphasis to teaching experience by administrators when determining tenure promotions and called the situation O’Rourke described “very discouraging.”

    John Muir College junior Jared Brown, an organizer for the campus chapter of the California Student Public Interest Research Group, also urged Alpert to take steps to address excessive pricing by textbook manufacturers.

    “The textbooks industry is ripping us off,” he said. “They hold a monopoly over students’ money and what we would like to see is state legislators and United States legislators get involved and do something about this issue.”

    Alpert agreed controlling book costs was a priority for lawmakers, saying that the price of books has kept low-income students receiving tuition waivers at community college from attending.

    “It’s not the fee that’s killing these people, it’s the books,” Alpert said.

    Alpert, the chair of the state senate’s Appropriations Committee, which must approve all spending for the state, and a member of the Education Committee, was the second elected representative to speak to UCSD students about higher education issues this quarter. Earlier in April, Rep. Susan Davis (D-San Diego) also met with students.

    “The goal was to allow students the opportunity to discuss issues facing public education with their representatives who are involved in the policy making decisions,” said Jared Feldman, the A.S. director of university relations, who coordinated the meetings.

    Feldman said the event with Alpert went well.

    “I thought it was a very good turnout. I was actually very excited to see that number of people that thought it was important to have this discussion,” he said.

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