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College savings, accreditation focus of state legislation

By
From page A3 | February 23, 2014 |

By Nanette Asimov
A pair of higher education bills — one to stimulate college savings and the other to radically change the way community colleges are accredited in California — were introduced this week by Bay Area lawmakers.

State law currently requires California’s 112 community colleges to be accredited by the private Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, one of six such agencies nationwide that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

But the commission has run afoul of faculty and other advocates for its crackdown on City College of San Francisco, the state’s largest school. Three groups have sued the commission, and a judge has barred it from revoking City College’s accreditation until a trial determines whether the school was evaluated legally. The process has also highlighted the fact that the fate of public colleges rests with a private agency doing business behind closed doors.

Now, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, has introduced AB 1942 to let college districts choose their own accrediting agency. Accrediting decisions – including appeals, which now go before the same commission that issued the negative verdict – would all be conducted in public.

Faculty and other critics are hailing the bill. Yet questions remain about how it would work.

Who would accredit the colleges? Would other agencies across the country be willing or able to take on the additional work of overseeing so many community colleges in a distant state? Those agencies are private, too. Why would they agree to become public agencies and take on extra work with no additional funding?

Aides to Bonta had no answers but said the state’s Board of Governors for community colleges could serve as an accreditor, or authorize new agencies to do the work.

“Looking for the most lenient accrediting commission would not be beneficial for any community college,” said Scott Lay, who heads the Community College League of California, which represents the interests of the state’s 72 college districts. “I would hate to see a shopping effort for the lowest common denominator.”

The issue is complicated, acknowledged Professor John Levin of UC Riverside, an education researcher who heads the California Community College Collaborative.

But he said the current system is so riddled with problems — including a lack of transparency, as well as high-stakes decisions that often confuse the colleges that are left to pick up the pieces — that reform is needed.

“So I applaud the principle” of the new bill, he said.

A second bill, AB 1956 by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, would give families an additional financial incentive to sock away money for their children’s college education through ScholarShare, California’s version of the federal 529 college savings plan.

The plan already lets families set aside tax-free money for college.

The new bill would create a state tax credit equal to 20 percent of the money families contribute each year to the college savings plan. The tax credit would be capped at $500 a year.

The bill is estimated to cost the state up to $25 million a year. But Bonilla and Bill Lockyer, the state treasurer, say the state would ultimately benefit.

“It’s not an outright loss, but an investment,” Bonilla said, noting that Lockyer’s office projects that the bill would decrease student debt by $600 million over 20 years.

“The burden of debt is an enormous strain on society,” Bonilla said. “This type of investment begins to pay off for families.”

— Reach Nanette Asimov at nasimov@sfchronicle.com

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