California’s Higher Education Policies = Economic Growth

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

Like all the states, U.S. education law grants California a wide berth in setting its individual educational standards. And, as its own unique State, California has established itself as a national leader in developing relevant, innovative, and insightful education policies to advance its governmental initiatives and improve the lives of its residents. Notably, California higher education policy leadership has also proven adept at including the nuances of the times in its policy-making practices, specifically addressing pressing social and cultural issues and weaving them into its overall educational strategy.


California’s Public School Policies

Well before there was a California State Department of Education (which was eventually established in 1921), there were free public schools for all children. San Francisco opened the first one in 1849, although it was only accessible for ‘poor‘ children, and by 1854, there was a steady public school system across the entire State. In 1867, public school education became accessible for all children, and in 1874, school attendance also became mandatory for children between eight and fourteen years.

It wasn’t until 1902, however, that California’s public education policies also incorporated the funding needed to include high school students within its purview. From that point, state policies regarding funding provided increasingly valuable resources to students enrolled in the State’s public schools.


Policy Development Factors

Many social, geographical, and economic concerns drove policy discussions through the middle of the Century.

A 1933 Long Beach earthquake triggered school building construction supervision by the State Board of Education (established in 1927).

A 1944 report revealed the impact of unequal school funding, noting that schools in poorer neighborhoods did not enjoy the same high quality of education as that found in wealthier neighborhoods.

In 1946, the Mendez v. Westminster case resulted in the prohibition of segregation in California’s schools and opened all school doors to students of every color and ethnicity.

In 1968, a legal case, Serrano v. Priest, argued that funding schools through local property taxes was fundamentally unfair to students in poorer communities. The State Supreme Court agreed and set the stage for efforts to equalize school funding across all regions.

In 1978, the newly passed Proposition 13 set a single standard for all property taxes across the State and put control of those funds in the hands of the state Board of Education. Those funds continue to be used as the school system’s primary operating funds.

In 1988, Proposition 98 created “School Accountability Report Cards, which provide comparisons between schools on significant educational goals, including student achievement, school environments, school resources, and demographics. The State has updated the cards at least ten times since their introduction.

In the Mid-1990s, the State’s education system launched an extensive reform to limit class sizes and institute state-wide English and Math standards. At the time, it was the most significant school system overhaul in history.

Through the last two decades, California’s education policies have continued to evolve to reflect the needs of the times. Adoption of the Common Core State Standards (eventually adopted in 42 other states) provided flexibility to local leaders to deal with concerns arising in individual communities (by reducing the number of school days, i.e.). It overhauled how the State pays for education by increasing taxes on wealthy people and directing spending to improve student services.


California’s Community Colleges

As they did with public elementary and high schools, California higher education policies have also led the way with community college (CC) initiatives, beginning with the launch of the nation’s first ‘Junior College’ – Joliet Junior College opened its doors in 1901.

California’s first public CC opened in Fresno in 1910.

The 1917 Junior College Act increased funding for community college development and expanded the mission to include the precursors of today’s industrial, domestic, and commercial programs.

College Districts (CD) were introduced in 1921 as an aspect of the State Board of Education, with Modesto CD inaugurating the resource.

The state legislature formalized the original Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960. It established the subject matter parameters of the University of California and California State University systems and clarified that one of the missions of the CC’s, in addition to academic and vocational training, is also to provide ‘workforce training services.’

By the 1960s, the State’s population sat at 16 million. The CC’s had enrolled 340,000 students, and all had ‘open door’ policies admitting anyone who sought entry.

Since the 1970s, the State grappled with numerous issues as it wrote and rewrote the policies governing its higher education schools:

Funding was always a concern as revenue sources ebbed and flowed in confluence with economic activities.

A series of laws (see Proposition 13, above) revised its funding models, shifting those resources to support whole programs (as opposed to individual courses), and created the Student Success Act, which realigned the mission of the CC system to pursue ‘student success‘ as its primary goal.


Skills Gap Drives Changes

Notably, in 2010, the Government again revised its Higher Education Master Plan policies to reflect then-emerging realities that continue to impact both the State’s CCs and its economy. Research had revealed a significant ‘skills gap’ between what the CCs were teaching their students and what was needed by state and regional industries and businesses.

From this reality emerged the “Doing What MATTERS for Jobs and the Economy” (DWM) project, an initiative driven by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO). As the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 receded, the State faced significant economic challenges, including more than two million unemployed workers. At the same time, many of its industries and businesses were suffering from labor shortages, and available workers lacked the skillsets and knowledge they needed to get and hold a well-paying job.

The DWM project addressed both these concerns through a single but comprehensive strategy:

Identify the major industries driving regional economies in each of the State’s 15 regions.

Strategize public and private financial investments to optimize skill-building programs in each region that correlate to those local industries and businesses.

Authorize and empower the community colleges in each region to provide the training needed by its business and industrial community members.

The DWM prioritizes labor market needs as the focal point of its budgeting and program development strategies and encourages innovation in both colleges and businesses to inform and build deeper connections. Added to the vision of the Student Success Act, the DWM project formally establishes California’s community college system as its crucial workforce development resource, making it a critical aspect of the State’s economic growth engine.


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