Whither Local Control?

Relations with Local Senates Committee Chair

In the last decade, outside factors have had increasing impact on the California community college system, including legislation, the economy, accreditation, and of course, the budget. These factors have also come on the heels of other critical changes and challenges that the colleges face, including the rising number of students who lack college-level math and English skills, increasing numbers of students seeking access to higher education as the University of California and the California State University systems have had to cut their enrollments, and individuals seeking to retool in the worsening economy. All of these elements taken together form the crux of many conversations, resolutions, and debates that have occurred at the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges plenary sessions and on local campuses in recent years.

One of the core features of the California Community College System is the emphasis on local control. This is why the 72 community college districts have their own boards of trustees, regulations, budgets, and administrations – and the 112 community colleges have their own local academic senates with their varied processes for handling participatory governance and the 10 plus 1 areas, including curriculum and program review. (See, for example, the results of the Local Senates Profile Survey at http://asccc.org/resources/surveys, which will be administered again in Spring 2011.) Because the emphasis is on the community that each college serves, local control is critical in determining what is best for the students and the community each college serves.

“Local control” has been invoked to defend local practices and to fend off what seems to be increasing incursions into areas that faculty and the Academic Senate have long held primacy. Yet, when examining some of the major issues that have provoked recent discussions and debate, local control has been allowed to remain. For example, SB 1440 (Padilla, 2010), which is now California Education Code §§66745-66749, has prompted discipline faculty from around the state to develop Model Transfer Curricula that can be used in the creation of the new associates degrees for transfer. Faculty can choose to develop these new degrees, yet colleges can also maintain their own individualized AA degrees that retain their own local graduation requirements. The proposal to change Title 5 regulations regarding prerequisites and the use of rigorous content review is also permissive – that colleges can choose to use rigorous content review in establishing prerequisites for non-English and math courses that require specific communication or computational skills or they can continue to use both content review and validation studies.

Local control also pertains to the 2002 Accreditation Standards and the emphasis on student learning outcomes (SLOs) and assessment as driving forces in college planning. How faculty at the 112 colleges choose to develop SLOs and assess them has again resulted in a variety of methods, as has the linking of assessment to budget and planning. All one has to do is ask local academic senate presidents to describe their college budget and planning processes, and I suspect we might see similar features though 112 unique ways in which those processes are carried out, depending on campus culture.

On the other hand, a few examples illustrate where local control is not always permitted, yet provide us with reminders of how thoughtful discussion, innovation, and creativity are the hallmarks of what faculty can do in shaping conversations and framing discussions. First, many of us remember the seemingly endless debates about raising the math and English graduation requirements. Importantly, these debates occurred on local campuses that then informed voting at the Spring 2005 Plenary Session, eventually resulting in the Title 5 change. This change heightened awareness of the growing student population that needed remediation, prompting the Basic Skills Initiative. The focus on this student population has reinvigorated a core mission of the California Community College System and has led to innovation and creative methods to help basic skills students succeed.

Another example is SB 1143 (Liu, 2010), which has established a task force to examine effective practices and models resulting in student success and metrics used to measure student success. Student preparation and success are part of our 10 plus 1 and should be part of local college discussions on institutional effectiveness and providing what students need as faculty work within their budget and planning processes. Again, these local discussions can help inform and shape statewide conversations.

The latest item that can have a direct impact on local control comes from the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). In its January 20, 2011, policy brief entitled The 2011-12 Budget: Prioritizing Course Enrollment At the Community Colleges (see http://lao.ca.gov/analysis/2011/highered/ccc_course_enrollment_012011.pdf), the LAO has recommended enrollment management policies to the Legislature that includes “(1) adopt[ing] statewide registration priorities that reflect the Master Plan’s primary objectives [which focus on transfer, Career Technical Education, and basic skills], (2) plac[ing] a limit on the number of taxpayer-subsidized credit units that students may earn, and (3) restrict[ing] the number of times that a student may repeat physical education and other classes at taxpayers’ expense.”

If these proposals find their way into legislation, local control of registration priorities would be eliminated. However, restrictions regarding repeatability of physical education classes and the earlier discussions on activity courses, as well as limiting the number of credit units students may earn through taxpayers’ expense, have raised other issues that would need to be addressed. For example, a student who has amassed 90 or 100 units at one college can attend another. And what of students who received their BAs, but want to retool for another profession, as some of our nursing students have?

However, within the policy brief is an intriguing idea that is worth exploring. As posed in the policy brief: “Under our recommendation, students with more than 100 units would still be eligible to attend a California community college. However, since a state subsidy would no longer be provided, the Legislature could authorize colleges to charge these students up to the full cost of instruction.” In this day of shrinking budgets, might this idea be expanded to include repeatability of physical education classes? While colleges can offer contract education, might colleges be able to offer extension courses?

Whither local control under these circumstances? As the Executive Committee members learned with SB 1440, faculty need to draw on what we do best in the classroom especially when a lesson isn’t going well or as faculty participating in our local colleges faced with daunting tasks – be innovative, flexible, creative, and ultimately, responsive to the issue at hand. In that way, we help to shape the conversation and perhaps influence the outcome to the benefit of our local colleges – and ultimately, our students.