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Bernie Sanders' idea for free tuition at public colleges deserves an A

Bernie Sanders' idea for free tuition at public colleges deserves an A
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sandershas said he believes there should be free public college education in the United States. California provided tuition-free college learning for generations. (Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times)

Bernie Sanders wants everyone to be offered a tuition-free college education and he's called crazy. America can't afford it, naysayers scoff. He's just pandering to young voters.

But too many of us in California forget: This state did provide tuition-free college for generations.

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That helped California achieve greatness by broadening the middle class and providing opportunities for upward mobility not available in other states.

It was an economic engine. In return for investing in higher education, California gained a widening pool of professionals, entrepreneurs and innovators who repaid the state many times over with tax payments, consumer buying and product creation. It set California apart.

So Sanders' idea is not loony.

Another noteworthy thing about the Vermont senator's intriguing race for the Democratic presidential nomination is that he doesn't seem to have been significantly tarnished by the mark of "socialist." He would have been a few years ago.

Sanders calls himself a "democratic socialist." There was a time when that would have been equated with Marx or Stalin. And it would have been placed in the same dumpster as "People's Republic."

"The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist," Sanders told Georgetown University students in December, "remember this: I don't believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.

"But I do believe the middle class and working class of this country who produce the wealth … deserve a decent standard of living."

Of course, it's easier to tout socialism when you're running in Democratic primaries. It's not the same as a general election.

"President Obama has been called a socialist by Republicans for eight years," says California pollster Ben Tulchin, who has conducted surveys for Sanders. "That has diluted the brand. If Obama is a socialist, all Democrats are socialists."

Moreover, Tulchin adds, "It's a negative implication that is lost on almost everyone under 50."
The USSR — and all its socialist republics — no longer exists. The Cold War ended while millennials were in elementary school. The Iron Curtain crumbled.

These days, Tulchin says, "capitalism" is likely to be as dirty a word as "socialism" among young voters. Blame Wall Street greed, corrupt mortgage lenders and the widening income gap.

Paul Mitchell, who crunches voter stats for Political Data Inc., says: "When I grew up in the '80s, I didn't want nuclear war. That forged my political view.

"Kids these days, their dominant political struggle is that their parents may lose their jobs, their house. Millennials go to sleep at night worried about not finding work or being laid off. They're ticked about economic insecurity."

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That brings us back to free college. It's no wonder the 74-year-old Sanders' brand of socialism appeals strongly to young voters.

"It is insane and counter-productive … that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college," Sanders says. "Making college debt free is not a radical idea."

Sanders also would significantly cut interest rates for college loans. To pay for it, he'd tax Wall Street "speculation." He says 40 other countries have imposed such taxes.

OK, but how did California tumble from being a tuition-free state to one where college is practically unaffordable for many middle-class kids?

Short answer: The state cut back on college funding because it had other spending obligations, most of them ordered by voters. Also, the universities — especially the University of California — couldn't control their appetites for executive positions, pay and perks.

In my day, every student paid a few bucks in registration fees and that was it, except for room, board and books. Tuition crept onto campus in the 1970s. By 1983, it was about $1,400 annually at UC and nearly $700 at the state universities.

Now it's ridiculous: roughly $14,500 at UC and $6,800 at the state universities. Yes, tuitions are higher in other states. But we've trashed one of this state's great selling points.

How'd it happen? The state money pot has remained basically the same size, adjusted for growth and inflation. But there are more programs gobbling the money.

Medi-Cal — healthcare for the poor — didn't exist before 1966. Now it consumes nearly 16% of the state general fund.

In 1978, voters passed Proposition 13, dramatically cutting local property taxes. Before that, property taxes paid for two-thirds of K-12 school costs; the state one-third. Afterward, the state-local burdens were reversed.

A decade later, voters mandated that roughly 40% of the general fund go to schools.
In the 1990s, voters went on an anti-crime, "lock 'em up" spree. Prison costs soared from 3% of the budget to 11%.

Then the recession hit, forcing sharp program cuts.

Throughout all this, university funding suffered and the ivory tower brass didn't adjust to economic reality. They jacked up tuitions.

"Bernie's not nuts," former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, a member of the UC Board of Regents, told me.

"But the question is how do you get there? It's only possible to have free tuition if you get a new state revenue stream.... And UC has to look at stark reality and make [spending' adjustments."

Hillary Clinton slams Sanders' idea, complaining it would help rich people such as Donald Trump.

Pérez suggests adopting a progressive tuition system based on a family's ability to pay.

To paraphrase Robert F. Kennedy, Sanders dreams of things the way they were — at least in California — and asks why not again?

Actually, there's no good reason.

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