A proposal to eliminate the California Postsecondary Education Commission would significantly impact the state's ability to protect its investment in public higher education, according to a state analyst.
The policy and planning agency for the state's public colleges and universities was among the 43 commissions and boards slated for elimination or consolidation in Brown's revised budget [PDF] released this week. The commission has 16 members, 20 paid staff and an annual budget of just under $2 million. The cut would save about $927,000 next year.
The governor's proposal takes away the commission but does not replace it. The California Department of Education would take over administration of a federal grant to improve teacher quality. The commission's other mandates would largely fall back to the University of California, California State University and California Community College systems, finance officials said.
The commission was formed in 1973 as a coordinating body to help ensure the UC, CSU and community college systems met state needs and achieved state goals. But several reports, including one in January 2010 by the Legislative Analyst's Office, have raised concerns about the commission's effectiveness, including an inherent conflict between the group's advocacy responsibilities and its role as an independent watchdog.
The report recommended a number of reforms, such as changing the program approval process, improving oversight for major policy decisions and revamping the appointment process so that commission members would be more independent from the colleges and universities they're supposed to hold accountable.
"There’s been concern for some time that CPEC has not been entirely effective carrying out its responsibility," said Judy Heiman, higher education analyst for the Legislative Analyst's Office.
"But there are some very important coordination functions that are necessary really to protect the state's investment in higher education, and we think ideally at least some of those are best done by an independent commission."
Two of the commission's most important functions have been to approve or reject proposals for new campuses, programs and facilities from the UC, CSU and community college systems; and to collect and analyze longitudinal data from all three education systems, Heiman said. Longitudinal data compiles student information over multiple years in multiple colleges and universities.
The commission's recommendation on program and school proposals is only advisory, but the colleges and universities historically have not allowed a campus to enact a proposal without the commission's stamp of approval, according to a 2009 report from the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Still, in one of the commission's more public battles, a proposal to start a law school at UC Irvine went ahead despite the commission's recommendation against it.
The commission in 2006 turned down [PDF] UC Irvine's proposal to start a new law school, finding that California had a sufficient number of affordable, high-quality law schools that met the region's industry needs.
The UC Board of Regents approved the proposal anyway. In August 2007, Donald Bren, the chairman of the Irvine Company, donated $20 million for faculty chairs and tuition scholarships, as the UC Irvine Law Review reports [PDF]. The school opened in 2009.
Despite this, Kevin Woolfork, budget policy coordinator for the California Postsecondary Education Commission, said the coordinating body provides a much-needed independent and data-driven perspective on whether the three systems are meeting the state's needs.
"You really have to have some level of statewide coordination, otherwise you will build something in Yreka that’s in direct conflict with something in San Ysidro," Woolfork said. "But you won’t know it, other than that you'd be paying for it."
He argued that the commission's review role has an impact on what the colleges and universities present – and whether, for example, they ask for state money to fund their proposals.
In the case of UC Irvine, the Legislature did not appropriate any state funds for the planning and startup costs of the new law school. The school planned to cover operational costs through student fee revenue, state enrollment growth funding, and private donations.
In 2009-10, UC Irvine general funds budgeted for its law school totaled $7.6 million, according to the university. To date, in 2010-11 general funds total $8.3 million. General funds include state dollars and fee revenue.
Under the governor's proposal, the responsibility of reviewing new program, school and campus proposals would fall to the UC, CSU and community college systems themselves, finance officials said.
But, Heiman said, "What's best for them isn't necessarily what's best for the state."
Additionally, the governor's proposal doesn't make any provisions for continuing the longitudinal data collection and analysis that the commission currently provides – specifically, the intertwined data from the UC, CSU and community college systems.
Woolfork and Gus Cubillo, data processing manager for the coordinating board, said that the U.S. Department of Education indicated in 2005 that the commission could not disclose the raw data, which has personally identifiable information, from one of the university systems to another.
That could mean that if the three public higher education systems wanted to recreate the longitudinal data, they would have to find a way to do it on their own without violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Heiman said the data, which allows the commission to figure out how well public colleges and universities are responding to state policy priorities, is important for the state to analyze.
"It would be a significant loss if (the commission) were eliminated and not replaced and that function were not preserved in some form," she said.