LOS ANGELES -- By chance, the three things that landed in my inbox -- that's a polite euphemism for "pile" -- on Tuesday were these:
The Hill, one of Washington's all-politics-all-the-time journals, with a headline that read: "Most Voters Say the U.S. Is in Decline."
Under that was Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's new book, "That Used to Be Us -- How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented."
And there was a tear sheet from the Los Angeles Times that hit me especially hard. The headline: "Access to Community Colleges May Be Rationed -- after years of cuts, the state's open-door system must change, a task force suggests."
The smaller headline on the Hill piece was: "The Hill Poll shows that the American spirit has been sapped. An overwhelming number of voters believe the current troubles presage a longer, deeper fall." The "overwhelming number" was 69 percent, including an astounding number of Republicans, 90 percent, thinking we're all going to hell in a handbasket. Only 21 percent of all respondents think the lives of their children will be better than their own.
Friedman and Mandelbaum, two of the smarter guys around Washington, have a landslide of data and insight about decline in their book, but I was drawn to a short section on the California university system, once the crown jewel of American public education -- and, as the authors say, the driving force behind the state's prosperity. Think research universities like Berkeley and UCLA, where I taught in the 1990s, when some of the best professors on campus were being offered buyouts and moved on to other universities.
Tuition was free at the University of California, the California State university system (originally teacher's colleges), and below that, the community colleges. All that has changed since referenda in the late 1970s essentially froze property taxes and required super majorities of the Legislature to raise any other revenues. K-12 education imploded; California went from the best neighborhood public schools to the worst in the country. The universities, state colleges and community colleges began to replace tuition with all sorts of fees that amounted to the same thing.
What worries me and will continue to plague California is the decline of the 112 two-year, open-enrollment community colleges, with their 2.9 million students and more than 90,000 employees. It is the largest education system in the world, and students who do well, almost always working at outside jobs, would win admission to the four-year colleges and universities. Every kid in the state had a shot, a chance and a second chance.
No more. The number of classes has been reduced, forcing out many students. The fees will be $42 a credit hour per semester next year (about $1,000 a year), with another $1,650 for books and supplies. The 1960 Master Plan for Education in California was based on this goal: "Provide an appropriate place in California public education for every student who is willing and able to benefit from attendance."
No more. What the state task force, which will report to the Board of Governors (appointed by the governor) of the California Community Colleges, is proposing is that students judged not to have specific goals or motivation be weeded out of the community colleges. There are now public hearings around the state on their proposals. Inevitably, the CCC system will turn down people who are not headed for the four-year university track -- and more and more they will cut out the courses that train policeman and firefighters, nurses and welders.
In other words, the University of California systems will do what other institutions are doing, crushing the middle class and building a society of rich people, educated or skilled elites, and a bigger and bigger working class without workers. That is American decline.