AB 806 and the 50% Law: Could We Do Better?

ASCCC Vice-President

Since 1961, California state law has required each community college district to allocate no less than 50% of its general fund expenditures to “salaries of classroom instructors,” under a formula based upon the current expense of education.   This requirement, commonly referred to as “the 50% Law,” is the subject of Assembly Bill (AB) 806 as proposed by Assembly Member Scott Wilk in early 2013.  AB 806 would allow colleges to change the ways they determine their compliance with the 50% Law by counting as classroom instructors faculty who are not currently considered to fall under that heading, including counselors, librarians, faculty coordinators, department chairs, and faculty directors of programs such as Extended Opportunity Programs and Services and Disabled Support Programs and Services.

Although AB 806 is still listed as an active bill, at present the proposed legislation is not moving forward.  The bill failed to reach approval in the Assembly Appropriations Committee at its first hearing, and the author later cancelled a second committee hearing on the bill in May. Still, despite the appearance that the bill is essentially “dead,” support for it remains. As recently as October 2013, the Association of California Community College Administrators (ACCCA) encouraged support for AB 806 at a meeting of the Chancellor’s Office Legislative Task Force.  The task force did not agree to support the bill.

AB 806 is far from the first attempt at changing the 50% Law, and it will not be the last.   Administrators raise various objections to the law’s requirements, noting that definitions of classroom instruction and even of the classroom have changed in the more than 50 years since the legislation was passed:  we now have a greater emphasis on counseling services both inside and outside the classroom, we give far greater attention to support services such as tutoring and supplemental instruction, and in 1961 no one had yet even imagined online instruction. 

Most faculty see the 50% Law as a necessary protection to ensure adequate support for classroom instruction, and the Academic Senate and other faculty organizations have vigorously defended its requirements on numerous occasions.  At times faculty have also expressed a willingness to consider alternatives or alterations to the law:  in Fall 2009, the Academic Senate Plenary Session considered four competing resolutions expressing support for or suggesting modifications to the 50% Law.  All four resolutions were referred to the Executive Committee, and in Spring 2010 Resolution 6.03, which resolved that the ASCCC “recommend that the 50% law be left unchanged until such time as a more appropriate percentage that seeks to accomplish the goals delineated in past resolutions can be identified and appropriately justified,” was passed.  This position, the Academic Senate’s most recent regarding the 50% Law, maintained support for the law while still leaving room for future exploration of alternatives.

When AB 806 was originally proposed, it featured a frequently debated compromise:  change both the designation of which faculty are counted as instructional and raise the percentage of the budget allocated to instruction.  Specifically, the first version of the bill would have moved only counselors to the instructional side and would have raised the percentage allocated for instructional salaries to 52%.  The bill was amended in April to maintain the percentage at 50% and to add other faculty not currently defined as instructional to that category.  Some faculty members might have looked more favorably upon the original language:  counselors have often lobbied to be included with instructional faculty in calculations regarding the 50% Law and for other purposes, and raising the percentage on the instructional side would seem to provide room for this change.  Indeed, ASCCC Resolution 6.04 F09, which was a part of the package of competing resolutions that were referred, called for “a change in California Education Code §84362(d) to include counseling and library faculty in the calculation and to increase the mandate for expenditure of unrestricted operational funds from a minimum of 50% to 54%.”  The original language of AB 806 would have been a step in this direction.

However, other faculty express concerns regarding proposals to adjust the percentage and include student services faculty. In some districts, the allocation of 50% of the budget to classroom instruction is seen as a ceiling, not a minimum, and thus adding all faculty to the instructional side of the equation, even with a slight increase in the percentage allocated to that side, would either fail to encourage more fiscal support for student services or would diminish the current funding level for classroom instruction.  Some administrators also oppose such a proposal, noting that operational costs—a part of the non-instructional side of the 50% Law—inevitably and unavoidably rise regardless of increases or decreases in enrollment and that when costs are forced down on one side of the law, decisions regarding costs on the other side may be made for the wrong reasons.  Proposals that would raise the instructional minimum percentage while moving counselors and other faculty or expenses not currently defined as instructional to the instructional side fail to address this need to balance the two sides of the equation and the consequences that forced reductions or increases on one side might have on the other.  Thus, while the original version of AB 806 may have been preferable to its current form, it was still a very problematic proposal.

Given the attention that the 50% law has received both recently and in the past, one might ask whether it truly accomplishes the protections for which faculty defend it.   The most frequently perceived and stated purpose of the law is to “establish a minimum standard of commitment and financial support by community college districts for the quality instruction of students in the California Community Colleges” (ASCCC Resolution 8.04 S01).  However, if, as Resolution 6.03 S10 stated, “the 50% law is often cited as a disincentive to the hiring of faculty who provide vital support services for students, such as counseling and library faculty,” then one must wonder if this minimum standard is being upheld.  Indeed, Resolution 6.07 in Fall 2000 stated that “the State Auditor has investigated the application of the 50% law and found that 6 of the 10 surveyed districts were out of compliance.” Even though these findings took place over a decade ago, they might still raise questions regarding the degree of compliance and enforcement of the law at some colleges.

Other faculty voices have claimed various purposes for the 50% Law, including a guarantee of fair compensation for faculty or prevention of administrative bloat.  However, as The Community College League of California’s December 2000 “Fifty Percent Law--Background Paper” notes, “Legislative history appears to demonstrate that the objective was to decrease class size in California’s public schools rather than guarantee teachers any particular level of compensation, as some have argued.”  If the original purpose of the 50% Law was to address class size concerns, one might wonder if a more effective protection for instructional standards and funding could now be developed.

Certainly faculty in general and the Academic Senate in particular should never simply surrender the protections granted by the 50% Law.  The law may be imperfect, but one could well argue that if it did not exist, funding for instruction could suffer even further.  Faculty leaders throughout the state cannot and should not agree to changes in the 50% Law until a proposal that provides a better, more effective set of protections and requirements is developed. 

However, if better and more effective requirements can be developed, then all system partners, including faculty, administration, and staff, would be well served to participate in such a discussion.  Perhaps the best starting place would be a conversation defining the specific protections and goals that each group would like to achieve.  By beginning from the question of what we hope to accomplish and then building the best legislation for doing so, the community college system might avoid the type of flawed proposal, as exemplified by AB 806 that seeks to address concerns by adapting or modifying the existing law.

At the October meeting of the Chancellor’s Office Legislative Task Force, Community College League President and CEO Scott Lay noted that no change to the 50% Law is likely to happen until all system partners can go together to the legislature with a proposal all have agreed to.  At this time, no such proposal exists, and therefore the Academic Senate should and must remain faithful to its established positions and defend the law in its current form by opposing legislation such as AB 806.  When an exploration can take place that moves toward reaching agreement on more effective means of defending the funding and standards of our instructional programs, then faculty would do well to join the conversation.