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Prisons Over Professors: Wrong Priorities in California Budget Cuts

A non-partisan policy analysis group, California Common Sense (CACS), released a report last Thursday called “Winners and Losers: Corrections and Higher Education in California” that shows how the state has reduced higher education funding while simultaneously increasing it for the state prison system consistently over the past three decades.

Higher education has seen periods of large cuts over the years, linked to the economic cycles in California. After adjusting for inflation, higher education in 2011 received 13% less State funding than it did in 1980. Corrections, on the other hand, expanded its share of the State’s General Fund by 436%. In fact, the only significant reductions in Corrections’ funding occurred after the 2007 recession.

In 1980, the state footed two-thirds of the bill for higher ed in California. Now, that number is closer to one quarter. Middle class students who do not qualify for the need-based financial aid from programs like Cal Grants are forced to sop up the difference by taking out more loans and accruing more debt. Meanwhile, California legislators swatted the "Middle Class Scholarship Act” earlier this month.

Trends in California exemplify the "great cost shift" that Demos documented in a study earlier this year that shows how state disinvestment in higher education has shifted costs to students and their families.

The negative consequences go beyond strapped students and parents. CACS Senior Researcher Mike Polyakov warns of a sustained and statewide “brain drain” if this dangerous trend in California’s spending does not change. Brain drain contributes to California’s problem with middle class flight.  

When a rock star academic like Judith Butler closes up shop at UC Berkeley to take a position at Columbia in New York for greener pastures, better pay and brighter pupils, they take prospective students’ sorely needed tuition dollars with them. Also, however annoying undergrads and college towns may be, they provide much needed revenue for the state and raise the value of middle class homeowners’ properties in surrounding areas.

Governor Brown is doing little to alter these spending patterns. “Public Safety Realignment" is the bureaucratico-poetical device Brown invented to describe California State Assembly Bills AB 109 and AB 117 to relieve the stress on overcrowding in prisons. “Realignment” makes those serving time in prison for “non-violent, non-serious and non sexual” offenses eligible for transfer to county-run jails.

Instead of making any concrete changes to government spending, Brown responded by mixing some of the puzzle pieces around while producing more class stratification. Wealthy counties aren't going to generate more prisoners; poorer counties produce more prisoners and incur a heavier burden.

The governor told NBC Bay Area he intends to reduce the share of the state fund that prisons receive by 6.5%. Subtract that from the 1380% increase in prison spending over all since 1980. Meanwhile, paychecks for prison guards have fattened while faculty salaries at state schools struggle to compensate for inflation:

Whereas prison guard salaries were subject to periods of sustained salary increases for the better part of 30 years, faculty salaries saw only weak growth during the 1980s and 1990s, and they experienced a real decline during the 2000s.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) says that even as the impact of the recession recedes, the "gap between upper and lower-income families is now wider than ever" in the Golden State and "the number of families in the middle-income range is shrinking." Along with corporate tax dodgers that shortchange their employees, the pro-prison, anti-higher ed spending agenda makes an already difficult situation for the Californian middle class even worse.