On March 5th, thousands of students from across California marched on the State Capitol to protest the massive cuts to higher education that the state government has approved in recent years. Student and state leaders alike spoke on the steps of the Capitol Building, proclaiming the importance of higher education while denouncing the continued disinvestment that threatens its survival. Speaker John Perez, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom each pushed for new state reforms, and the students made it clear that the colleges they represent can no longer afford to stand idly by as the state uses their funding to balance its books. Meanwhile, the man on whose shoulders this state rests was nowhere to be found.

Since it was introduced to the state legislature earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown’s 2012 budget proposal has taken a lot of heat from the various state organizations whose funding it threatens.  The proposal, which is combating a $9.2 billion deficit, seeks to balance the budget by implementing an equal share of spending cuts and tax increases in the next fiscal year.

One of the professed goals of the proposal is to deliver some much-needed aid to California’s beleaguered education system; and, at first blush, it would appear that the plan is relatively on target.  If the proposal passed, K-12 and community college programs would receive an additional $5 billion in funding, and the UC and CSU systems would see increased state investment starting in 2013.  The University of California would even receive $90 million to assist the institution with the cost of pensions for its retired employees.

However, all is not as it seems in this year’s budget proposal.  As far as the K-12/community college funding is concerned, it turns out that most of the money will go to paying off deferrals owed to schools by the state.  The proposal, then, would not actually create much of an opportunity for new spending in these programs.

As for Brown’s promise that the state will begin to invest more in higher education in years to come, it is, though not without merit, a little underwhelming.  Last year alone, the CSU and UC systems were hit by over $750 million in cuts.  It would take a long time for incremental annual increases in state funding to make up for so crippling a blow.  This portion of Brown’s proposal amounts to little more than a sign of good faith – the state acknowledges that higher education is suffering and promises that it will do what it can to help in the future.

Now we come to the $90 million contribution to the UC’s general fund.  This money, as previously noted, will go directly to pay for UC employees’ pensions.  In other words, students won’t see a penny of this funding, on or off campus.  That is not to say that the expense is unnecessary or uncalled for – only that it will not benefit students.

We can fairly conclude, then, that the assistance Brown’s budget proposal would provide to California’s education system is fairly unremarkable.  Most institutions, while they would not be burdened by the plan, stand to gain relatively little from it – provided Brown’s tax initiative, which will fund the proposal, passes.

Unfortunately, if the initiative, which proposes an increase in taxes for those earning over $250,000 a year and a temporary rise in the state sales tax (by a half percent), does not pass, the proposal’s trigger cuts will kick in.  These would include an additional $4.8 billion in cuts to K-12 and community college funding and $200 million in cuts to both the UC and CSU systems, respectively.  In other words, what would’ve been a relatively harmless (albeit not particularly helpful) plan for keeping the education system afloat would turn into an unmitigated economic disaster.

Brown is, no doubt, aware of the predicament in which his proposal leaves California’s already-troubled education system.  It essentially holds our state’s education programs hostage – we can either pass the tax initiative and accept a plan that does little to help education, or prepare for another set of abysmal cuts to the system at large.

The notion that Brown would support a budget proposal that uses the welfare of California’s education programs as leverage against its citizens in order to pass his tax initiative is not only unsettling – it is also exceedingly dangerous.  Right now, only 52 percent of likely voters in California support temporarily increasing the state sales tax and income tax on high-wage earners, according to a survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute in California last week.  That means that there is a realistic possibility that, if Brown’s budget proposal were to pass in the fall, the trigger cuts built into it would take effect next year.

Students at the UC and other educational institutions across the state have already been made to shoulder too much of the burden of California’s budget crisis.  It’s time for the state to stop playing politics with students’ futures and refocus their efforts on finding long-term solutions for the vast array of funding problems that have plagued our educational apparatus for far too long.