Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to create a statewide community college that offers only online courses seems headed for a bruising legislative brawl.
Few important things are easy to achieve in today's fractious politics. This includes a signature agenda item for Brown in his newly proposed $190-billion state budget: the online college that seems so logical, so needed and a no-brainer — at least in concept.
Brown wants to provide an affordable, easily accessible way for working adults to improve their job skills and financial futures by going online at home, maybe even with a smartphone.
The concept is generally applauded. But the way the governor wants to run the online system worries some, especially the teachers union. It fears job losses, although that's not what the union is emphasizing.
The union and other skeptics make a good point in questioning whether online teaching is the best way to educate.
A Brown-heralded online program at San Jose State was abruptly scrapped in 2013 after half the students failed to pass final exams.
"What makes education really come alive for students is interaction with instructors and other students," says Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents community college instructors.
"Online is not a good approach. Students hurt the worst are at the lower end of the economic spectrum. They tend to drop out of online courses at a higher rate. The idea that it's beneficial to them flies in the face of our experience."
That thinking is dismissed by California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, a loud advocate of Brown's proposal whose office would run the online entity.
"The social network kids are growing up very different today than you or I did," he says. "Students meet and get to know each other through social networks. We may not prefer it that way, but that's the way they grow up."
The main benefit of online courses is convenience. Brown's desire is to help an estimated 2.5 million Californians ages 25 to 34 who hold a high school diploma but want more education. Half are Latinos. About 80% are working to support themselves and maybe some kids, and can't afford to take time off to attend classes.
"We're not targeting the traditional college student," Oakley says. "We're targeting people in apprenticeship programs, people who are trying to move from being a medical assistant to a supervisorial job…. They don't have the time to spend getting to know instructors and students on campus."
So although online teaching probably isn't the best way to educate, it could be the only way for many working adults.
Pechthalt doesn't necessarily agree. California has 114 community colleges, the union leader notes. There's one nearby everywhere except in isolated outposts.
"It's a misnomer to think that people can't get over to a college," he says. "For those who can't, colleges already offer online opportunities. To create a whole independent college that does just online courses seems counterproductive. I'm not opposed to online education, but schools already offer that stuff."
That's the main concern about Brown's proposal. Rather than pour extra money into strengthening current online programs operated by individual colleges, the governor wants to create one separate statewide online-only college.
There's a fear that will pull students away from local campuses. That's not just a worry of the union leader who's concerned about jobs. It's shared quietly by many college heads who fear losing student revenue. But they aren't speaking out yet because they're leery of tangling with the governor and chancellor, according to a community college insider who wants to remain anonymous for the same reason.
Brown earmarked $120 million to create an online college that would begin offering courses in fall 2019.
"That's $120 million that could be going to community colleges for courses in, say, trade technology or technical training," the insider laments.
But there's general agreement that community colleges have been snail-slow in developing online courses. And Brown deserves credit for stepping in and trying to do it himself.
"The challenge we have today in this economy is we have a lot of people, many of them white males 50-plus, who for many years had access to good paying jobs with a high school diploma," says Oakley, the chancellor. "Those jobs are gone. Those people are stuck and very frustrated. We've moved the goal posts on them. They can't drop everything and go back to school.
"California is becoming undereducated relative to what the changing economy is demanding. We have to create something different to help these individuals."
More than 100,000 Californians are enrolled in online courses at private institutions, but their costs are far higher than public college offerings, according to the governor's office.
Brown intends to push the Legislature hard.
A top aide called Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) the day before the budget unveiling to tell him what the governor expected. Brown was setting aside $46 million for the lawmaker's signed bill to waive course fees for all first-year, full-time students. And Brown expects the lawmaker's support for the online proposal, the aide added.
"We're going to talk to our friends," Pechthalt says, "and we're going to push to kill it. We'll see what little influence we have."
They have a lot. But the governor has more.
Brown should compromise with the individual colleges — preferably letting them run their own shows rather than creating a new state bureaucracy.
Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter