Das Williams
Paul Wellman (file)

About a week ago, Das Williams was stranded at his Santa Barbara home, his wife having commandeered the family’s electric-powered trike and their other mode of transportation, a Toyota Prius, being in Sacramento where the assemblymember spends most of his time. Perhaps such careful vehicular curation played a small part in this Democratic wunderkind’s quick ascent up California’s political food chain, but it sure didn’t help him escape an interview with The Santa Barbara Independent when we showed up at his front door to talk education.

Williams chairs the Assembly’s higher education committee, and he sits on the education committee in the California Legislature’s lower house exactly at a moment when community colleges are in crisis and the governor is trying to overhaul the spectacularly convoluted K-12 finance system. Williams was keen on promoting AB 955, a bill he authored to allow community colleges to offer non-state-supported full-cost extension courses during winter and summer sessions. Despite opposition from faculty groups and the chancellor’s office, the bill sailed through the Assembly on May 20 with a 50-16 vote. In our interview, Williams defended his bill, reminisced about his own education, and provided a helpful snapshot — for those who agree with him and those that don’t — of the political scene in the capital regarding education.

What motivated you to seek the chairmanship of the Committee on Higher Education? What was the source of your interest in education? I’ve always had a deep interest in education policy because, in my life, I didn’t have a storybook upbringing, but public education did exactly what it’s supposed to do — take kids like me and help turn them around to be good citizens and part of their society. It stuns people sometimes when they find out that in the space of two years, I went from being an under-aged high school dropout living in my car at Leadbetter Beach to going to UC Berkeley. And that difference was made by the opportunities that I had at community college. It makes me angry that even kids who are twice as smart as me and work three times as hard as I did cannot have the same opportunities. I was able to get through without any student debt in two years and one summer’s worth of classes. That would be almost impossible for people today, even at a place like SBCC that has better class availability than most. At poor community colleges, it’s difficult to get through in three and a half years. Most students are taking four to six, if they complete at all.

Something people need to understand is that this has a real justice component. The six-year completion rate at community colleges statewide is only 53.7 percent. Respectfully, when people say it’s much better at SBCC, it’s actually not that much better. It’s 57 percent. To me, people should be taking two years to get two years of credit. Maybe three years or even four years if they work full-time. But only half making it through within six years and half not or dropping out? Then when you tease out that data by race, you realize that you have a huge social justice problem. The six-year completion rate among Latinos is only 15 percent. When you look at the demographics of the new students, they are more black and brown than ever before. So we have a system that is failing 85 percent of the majority group. Isn’t it time to try some new things, even if they’re unpopular?

I would add that at the same time we are failing the majority, we are also turning away hundreds of thousands of students per year. By last year’s count, half a million students were turned away. That’s almost as many students as the whole UC and CSU [University of California and California State University systems] put together. People should be angry, and they should want change. The reason people are not burning for change is that they don’t like the options that are before them.

The big criticism of AB 955 is that it would create a two-tiered system. That’s not based on any data. Eleven thousand students take for-credit CSU extension courses every year. There is no evidence that those are very rich kids. There are no good measures, but anecdotally, the evidence seems to be that it is more diverse a population than in normal school. You can understand why. Just as working-class students paying higher tuition is sometimes difficult, going to school longer is even more difficult. If you have a family to provide for, if you have a limited number of years you will get scholarship or support, or if you have a job, you go to extension because that enables you to complete. If poorer people are willing to pay the costs at extension, it must be because they save money somewhere along the line. Average living expenses are $17,500 per year. So if someone takes two of our extension courses and it costs them $450 more than a normal course, that’s $900. If they are avoiding $17,500 worth of expenses, I don’t understand why that’s not cheaper.

I spoke to SBCC Trustee Peter Haslund specifically about your bill. He said if you allow the state to push costs onto students, you are letting the state get away without fulfilling its responsibility to higher education. If the assertion is that it would be better to solve this with full funding of education, I am 100 percent in agreement, but the total level of defunding of community colleges is $1.5 billion in 2007 dollars. So that would be about $1.7 billion today. The governor has proposed adding $200 million, or $2 billion of a return. That’s a substantial benefit and that will help. I pushed for more than that, and the governor has answered with an increase in the “May Revise.” But let’s just say we are able to get $300 million back. If we did that every single year, it would take six years to get to full funding. I would ask Dr. Haslund and other folks: Are we willing to sacrifice a generation of students for the hope of full funding?

Furthermore, nobody has a solution. I met with Dr. Haslund for an hour and a half about this. I’ve tried to meet with every SBCC trustee. I met with the Academic Senate, student groups, everybody that’s asked. And I approached about 100 groups across the state. None of them has another solution. Well, The Sacramento Bee and the [California Community Colleges] chancellor propose to raise fees overall. How is a mandatory increase in fees a better option than an optional increase in fees? In my model, folks only pay the higher fees when they choose to. To me, there’s three ways you can go: You can go with raising fees overall, which I don’t agree with. You can go with full funding, which will take six or seven years if it ever happens at all. Or we go with my plan, which I don’t view as a perfect option but better than the alternatives. The system is breaking down.

Do you feel like you’ve become less idealistic and more pragmatic since you joined the Assembly? I try to be very idealistic in my goals, but not idealogical in the methods. When we use dogma to determine our methods instead of data, we fail to produce results for the people that we’re trying to help. AB 955 is a perfect example where dogma is getting in the way of any solution at all. There are about 10 non-fiscal solutions to this crisis of access. Most stakeholders are against every single option. They’re against expanding online classes; they’re against performance-based budgeting; they’re against larger class sizes; they’re against all sorts of ideas. I’m not saying any one of those ideas is the way we should go, but we have to do something to give students access to classes.

What do you think of the bills pushing for more online courses? Online courses are a part of the solution, but we have to keep the quality high, and we can’t do that if we expand really fast. It takes time to keep with the academic standards. That’s what makes the discussion difficult. Some people think it’s horrible; some people think it’s great. I’m in the middle.

What was your own favorite course as a college student? My favorite professor was Dr. [Manoutchehr] Eskandari[-Quajar] because he is able to lecture in a way that is very casual, conversational, and engaging, even when it’s about a subject that some students wouldn’t automatically find exciting. Like the nature of the legislature of Iran. Some people consider that dry, but if you tell it as a story like he does, it’s really something. Some day I hope to join Dr. Haslund and Dr. Eskandari in the teaching profession. They inspired me so much. It’s probably not the best career move to do a bill that’s opposed by all the people I’m hoping to be my future colleagues.

Unless it turns out to be a spectacular success, and they admit they were wrong. I’ve worked in politics since the mid-’90s, and I’ve never experienced that. [Laughs.]

We’ve talked about access at community colleges. How about four-year universities? In the Assembly we are trying to create a middle-class scholarship that would reduce fees. The lower-income third at UC and CSU qualify for enough aid to make the cost of their education pretty reasonable, but the middle third is the one that’s squeezed the hardest by fee increases. So our proposal would reduce UC fees from a bit over $12,000 to a bit over $9,000 and CSU fees down from about $9,000 to around $6,000. We proposed this last year as part of closing a tax loophole. Now we’re proposing it as part of the budget. It is real important, whether by this method or another one, that we put more money into the UC and CSU. Particularly, the highest priority for the CSU is increasing enrollment. They need at least $54 million more to accommodate 10,000 more students.

The big news in K-12 education is the governor’s new finance scheme, called the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). It’s an interesting dance between the Senate, the Assembly, and the governor right now. In concept, everybody seems to agree that we need to make an investment in lower-income and English-language-learning students. The details are the issue, and I would also say that my worry is that too many people seem to be concentrating on the flaws in the governor’s proposal rather than concentrating on the fact that for the first time in any of our lifetimes, we have a governor who is willing to tackle the inherent inequities in our education finance system. He has pretty much said, “I’m going to fight it until the end,” which to me sounds like he is going to veto a budget that doesn’t have a LCFF.

I hope that the concentration grant [for English learners, economically disadvantaged students, and foster youth] should be awarded by school [as opposed to by district]. Generally, the California Teachers Association will oppose awarding everything by school, but I hope they consider that it would not change funding much while making it transparent to the public that the kids are getting the resources they are supposed to. I’ve been very inspired by the productive tone that local superintendents and school board members have about the LCFF. I’ve definitely taken some of their suggestions and brought them to the governor’s folks. My hope is that we have a negotiation that results in a product that will give our kids the best education possible.


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