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Chancellor questions fairness of SMC plan to provide higher-cost classes

Kayleigh Wade, a freshman at Santa Monica College, and her partner Aura Chavez were both pepper sprayed at a recent protest there.
Kayleigh Wade, a freshman at Santa Monica College, and her partner Aura Chavez were both pepper sprayed at a recent protest there.
Vanessa Romo/KPCC

Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott said today that a Santa Monica College plan to offer a two-tier pricing plan for classes raises questions of fairness for the open enrollment system.

"The biggest issue right here is whether or not we are favoring those who have greater income over those who don’t," Scott said. "That's I think where it's problematic."

Scott has asked the state's Attorney general for an opinion on the legality of the program, which would provide additional self-funded courses to students. On Wednesday, Scott advised Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang to put the plan on hold the morning after dozens of students were pepper sprayed by campus police as they protested at a Board of Trustees meeting.

As of 10 a.m. the college had not made any decision to put the plan on hold, said spokesman Bruce Smith. In a recent interview, Tsang said the college believed its plans are legal. "We definitely want to work within the limits of the law," Tsang said.

"We have had cuts since 2008, and every year we think that it will turn around the next year, we were hoping that would happen, and so we've been waiting and it hasn't happen," Tsang said. "Our students have been waiting to get back in the doors for a long time, and we can't just sit here."

Scott said the education code is "a little ambiguous" about whether such a two-tiered system is legal. Santa Monica College supported a bill last year that would have allowed all community colleges to provide additional course offerings for higher fees, but that failed to pass in the state Senate. At the time, Scott did not take a position on the bill.

There's also the issue of pricing. The price of tuition is determined by the legislature for state community colleges. That revenue is then returned to the state.

"This is a little different, when a community college district makes its own determination of courses it will offer at a certain tuition price," Scott said. "And that, in my knowledge, has not been [the case] in the history of California Community Colleges."

The college plans to initially offer about 50 courses priced at $180 to $200 a unit this summer. That would be at least five times the current $36 per unit, which is a fee set by the legislature. Fees will rise to $46 per unit this summer. The higher-fee classes will support themselves, university officials said.

Students have said they worry the higher-cost classes will lead to a more permanent two-tier system that shuts out students who can't afford to pay more. Unlike the CSU and UC systems, the California Community Colleges is open enrollment and takes all comers, a point Scott often proudly makes in his talks at colleges.

"The worry would be that we would just have a tremendous number of classes, and particularly, the worry is that there are students that are low income and won't be able to take advantage of these classes," Scott said.

Scott said he believes that's why the legislature did not pass the bill last year.

"There's the question of whether this is fair to low-income students, so that's the issue," Scott said. "If the attorney general feels that they are permitted under the present law, then certainly we won't pursue it any further, and then it will be left up to the legislature as to whether they want to act on this matter or not.

"On the other hand, if the attorney general says they're not legally permitted, according to the contract education portion of the education code, then obviously they should cease and desist, because they would be acting illegally."

Scott said the contract portion of the education code has always been implemented via a third party, who assumes the costs. In this case, it would be students paying fees to directly support these classes for the first time, Scott said.

The system has suffered because of severe cuts to state funding. Last year 137,000 students were flat-out turned away — they couldn't even get into one course. Since 2009-10, the system has been hit by about $770 million in reductions, nearly 13 percent of its $6 billion budget. If voters do not pass the governor's initiative to raise taxes on the November ballot, the system could lose another $480 million under the 2012 proposed budget plan.

"There’s no question that we’re under a great deal of pressure, that there’s a large number of students who aren't able to get into classes. I don't at all disagree with that, in fact I’ve been very vocal in expressing my dismay at the fact that California is not providing sufficient funds for all students to get classes. However, this has to be done by the legislature and not by a local Board of Trustees. This could be very problematic."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).