The decision by Joshua Smith to quit the post of chancellor of California's community colleges after just two years dramatizes the need for serious legislative reform in the governance of the two-year schools.
Smith quit over the bureaucratic nature of the job and frustration with the slow pace of legislative reform. Unfortunately, reform rests with a Legislature thus far unwilling to delegate to the state chancellor and board of governors the necessary authority to get the job done.
There were those in the community-college system who were quietly and not so quietly rooting for Smith's departure. The Harvard-educated chancellor was at times both short and abrasive. A black from New England, he was not part of the old boy network. His call for a strengthened state board of governors was perceived, incorrectly, to threaten locally elected trustees.
But Smith, after obtaining the confidence of the Legislature and the governor, also managed to secure a substantial increase in funding for the colleges. And he helped lead an effort to improve the quality of the transfer function and community-college education in general.
Still, at the heart of Smith's problems--and the problem for any future chancellor--is the incongruent fiscal and governance structure of California's community colleges.
As with the California State University and the University of California, the Legislature determines the budget for the community colleges. But, unlike CSU and UC, money is sent directly to each college district, bypassing the state chancellor's office. This gives the chancellor no room to set priorities. Nor can he speak for the system as a whole. When particular interests in the community colleges want additional money for pet projects, they bypass the chancellor and go straight to the Legislature. When legislators believe that some kind of substantive action ought to be taken to protect some interest, they pass a bill--once again bypassing the state chancellor.
A statewide blue-ribbon commission this summer called for increasing substantially the authority of the chancellor and the state board of governors. But key legislative leaders also had told Smith that he would not likely receive the kind of authority that he and the commission had sought for the state board. Local trustees and the chief executive officers of some of the local colleges are worried that a state board and chancellor with expanded authority will necessarily mean more bureaucracy and centralization.
In this case nothing could be further from the truth. Currently, changes in the budget allocation formula and in basic educational policy must be established by legislation--a clumsy and time-consuming process. While a particular problem may exist in Santa Maria, for example, legislation that is passed to solve the problem will usually apply to every college in the system--problem or not. Giving the chancellor's office the authority to deal directly with local chief executive officers to solve local problems would decrease bureaucracy and permit flexibility at the local level while still providing state accountability.
Strengthening the chancellor's hand would also permit the community colleges to speak with one voice in Sacramento. Currently, 35 lobbying groups purport to speak for the community colleges, often undermining legislation intended to help the system as a whole. There is little doubt that the community colleges have received less than their fair share of funding, in part because of a failure to set budget priorities clearly.
Some legislative leaders have said that they are concerned about giving broad power to a board of governors that could be appointed, and presumably controlled, by a governor of the opposing political party. But 99% of the decisions reached by state educational boards are non-political. In any event, the state board members could always be appointed in part by the Legislature.
The Legislature has the ultimate authority over education in California, and it can always take back any authority delegated. In the case of the community-college system, the Legislature should delegate broad fiscal and management authority to the state chancellor and the board of governors, and expect them to delegate that authority wisely.
Perhaps Smith's departure will stimulate the legislative leadership to reconsider strengthening the next chancellor's hand. If not, the job is one that few education leaders believe is worth having.