Thousands of community college students from throughout the state descended on the Capitol on Monday to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed cuts to their education system.
The rally, at which students demanded that the governor drop his plan to raise tuition by 44%, was the first of several large protests that had been scheduled in the coming weeks by groups angered by the governor’s budget.
The protests will test the governor’s resolve to stick by his plan to close a projected $14-billion budget shortfall without any tax increases, instead relying on deep spending cuts in state services.
The only major public protest the governor had faced until now prompted him last fall to drop proposed cuts to the developmentally disabled.
But on Monday, administration officials defended their community college cuts as reasonable.
“Even with the proposed increase, California will still have the lowest community college fees of any state,” said Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer, adding that the increase would give more students access to federal grants.
The governor is proposing to hike tuition to the state’s 109 community colleges from $18 per credit to $26 per credit.
His budget plan also calls for saving money by giving 7,400 students -- already accepted to schools in the University of California and California State University systems -- the option to attend community college instead for their first two years, at no cost. Community college students said that there was not enough room in their system to guarantee admission to so many university transfers, and that the plan would force out others.
According to the Community College League, a nonprofit advocacy group, state cuts last year resulted in 175,000 Californians being turned away from the system. In addition, courses were eliminated and class sizes were increased.
“We’re going to have to cut our students to add their students,” said Dawn Al-Bari, 34, who is studying to be a radiologist at San Francisco City College. She said cuts last year caused her school to reduce summer course offerings by 60%.
“His plan is going to backfire,” said Al-Bari, a former math teacher who said that completion of her program would put her in line for a $65,000-a-year hospital job. “Fewer people are going to get trained, meaning fewer people will get back into the workforce.”
Lisandro Lopez, 22, a student at Diablo Valley College in Pleasanton, said the tuition hike would “make it harder to focus on school. We’ve got to focus on working a job instead, so we can afford it.”
Palmer noted that although per-student subsidies would decrease under the governor’s plan, overall spending for community colleges would rise by $415 million, and enrollment would jump by 33,120 students.
“Virtually every aspect of state government is being asked to take on cost controls and budget reductions,” he said. “This is one of the very few areas in the state budget where the governor is proposing a significant increase in state spending” at the same time that fees are being raised.
He noted that even under the governor’s plan, students would pay only 16% of their college costs and that the state would pay the rest.
At the rally, leading Democratic legislators urged students to pressure the governor to increase the income tax on the wealthy instead of hiking tuition and cutting programs.
“How are we going to handle this?” shouted Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles). The crowd responded: “We are going to tax the rich.”
Goldberg encouraged the students to begin a drive to send the governor 1 million postcards with that message.
As students rallied outside the building, other parts of the governor’s budget were meeting resistance in an Assembly subcommittee inside.
Democrats voted to reject capping enrollment in the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, after activists and healthcare experts testified that it would deny up to 1,440 low-income Californians access to life-extending drugs. The medications can cost between $15,000 and $20,000 per year.
The vote comes a week after a Senate subcommittee rejected similar caps on a number of other health programs proposed by the governor.
The Assembly panel Monday recommended extension of a prostate cancer treatment program at UCLA that had been threatened with a funding cutoff.
Times staff writer Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this report.