Scott Wilk | An investment we can do without

Sen. Scott Wilk
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Despite a pandemic, social unrest and everything else that is going on around us, California has a constitutional deadline of June 15 to pass a state budget. 

You’d think facing that multi-billion-dollar budget deficit would provide enough incentive for the Legislature to dig deep, find wasteful, duplicative programs of dubious value and eliminate them. If not now, when?

That’s why I have proposed to eliminate the Calbright College, a controversial online college established by the previous administration. It is struggling mightily, offers certificate programs that are already being offered through the state’s community college system, and is only serving a little over 500 students. 

I opposed the creation of this online college in 2018 – as did members of both the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees – because it was duplicative of existing programs and would take away education dollars from other community colleges when money got tight. Sadly, this proposal was rammed through during final budget negotiations. 

Money is now tight and Calbright College should go away.

Calbright Online Community College was created in 2018 — a flush time budget-wise — with a goal of reaching young adults (25-34) in need of new job skills. It was a pet program of former Gov. Jerry Brown and was to offer job training and non-degree certificates in fields including cybersecurity, medical coding and information technology, and be free to students. It was provided $100 million over seven years for startup costs and $20 million annually for operating costs.

California’s robust community college system already offers many of these same benefits and programs. The abrupt shift to strictly online learning during COVID-19 has proven our current community college system is more than capable of meeting the challenge of providing an online learning platform.

Calbright has floundered since it opened its doors in 2019. The original president resigned abruptly earlier this year; there have been questionable spending practices such as costly no-bid contracts; and the school has failed to reach multiple specified milestones, including developing partnerships with employers and industry groups, developing an accreditation plan, a student outreach plan, establishing internal business processes, personnel policies and outcome goals. These milestones were to be in place by July 2019.

Earlier this year, before the pandemic hit, there was enough concern about Calbright’s failures that legislators from both houses scheduled an audit, which has since been postponed to save costs.

My feeling — shared by multiple legislators on both sides of the aisle — is that Calbright is a very costly experiment largely duplicating programs already existing in our college systems. It was opposed in 2018 by members of both the Assembly and Senate budget committees, and became law through back-room budget dealings between legislative leadership and Gov. Brown.  

As it stands now, Calbright’s operating costs per student are too high, and it’s still unaccredited. All that in the face of our $54 billion budget deficit, and it’s clear Calbright is a giant waste of money. It needs to be eliminated and its remaining funds, about $137 million, transferred to the already existing accredited community college system, where the funds can be applied to bolster similar online offerings.

The community college system is already taking large cuts to its budget (as are virtually all state programs), so redirecting this money to it would ensure it’s still being spent in the manner intended while at the same time softening the budget hit.

My Senate Bill 1026 would to do just that — eliminate Calbright and redirect its unspent funds to the state and community colleges. However, the Democrat leadership is refusing to allow my bill to move forward and be heard. Technically, leadership is refusing to grant permission for me to amend the language into an existing education bill I’d previously introduced, but either way, the result is the same.

This is wrong. We already have the capability to educate people online without creating yet another college system costing us hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s wasteful and it flies in the face of common sense. 

A bad budget process – filled with games and back-room deals – resulted in this bad policy. Let’s hope that another bad budget process does not force us to keep it.  

Californians have reduced their own budgets out of necessity; the state must do the same. Eliminating a multi-billion-dollar deficit is painful. Every aspect of spending must be scrutinized; any projects not focusing on core issues must be suspended or scrapped. Aren’t we serious about making every dollar count? You would think all ideas to save money on nonessential programs would be eagerly embraced. You would think.

I hope the elimination of funding for Calbright – whether it is done through my bill or through the budget process – is the result.  That would be a first step in making every dollar count.

Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, represents the 21st Senate District, which encompasses the Antelope, Santa Clarita and Victor valleys.

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