ThinkTank Learning Interview with Speaker John A. Pérez
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John A. Pérez, Speaker of the California State Assembly

John A. Pérez is a union organizer and politician from Los Angeles, California, who has been the Speaker of the California State Assembly since March 1, 2010. A Democrat, he represents the 53rd district in the California State Assembly.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

T – ThinkTank Learning
P – Speaker of the California State Assembly John A. Pérez

T: Thank you, Speaker Pérez, for being interviewed for Think Tank Learning Monthly Magazine. This year’s legislative session recently ended. How did this year compare to recent years?

P: I believe the legislative session we just wrapped up puts a strong foundation in place for building a brighter and better future for California. When I was first sworn in as Speaker, California was in the worst depths of the Great Recession. Our budget was billions of dollars in deficit, our unemployment rate was near the worst in the nation, and twice that year California came within days of insolvency.

It took some tough cuts and difficult decisions to make it through, but it had to be done. Fortunately, the tough decisions we made gave voters the confidence to give the legislature better tools to govern. With the passage of Proposition 25 in 2010, California joined 47 other states in only requiring a simple majority to pass a budget. And then in 2012, our continued fiscal responsibility convinced voters to approve Proposition 30 and provide temporary revenue increases to help get the state’s fiscal house in order.

T: After years of deficits and cuts, it looks like this year California has turned the corner.

P: You’re absolutely right. California has turned the corner. We no longer face having to make drastic cuts year after year. By continuing to be prudent, we are now in a position where we can make smart reinvestments in our people and infrastructure, particularly in top- priority areas like education.

This year the Assembly created a Blueprint for a Responsible Budget, which led the way to a final budget that included a $1.1 billion dollar reserve and paid down $4.2 billion in debt. Today, the budget is balanced and we have surpluses projected for years to come. I am also proposing a real Rainy Day Fund that will take the additional revenues we get in good years and bank them away so that in years where our revenues come in short, the state can maintain budget stability.

These actions have all helped put California back on track. Our revenues are rebounding faster than all but one state, our unemployment rate has dropped substantially, and as of October, California employers added jobs for 26 months in a row, the longest job creation streak in the nation. And California has reclaimed the mantle of the eighth largest economy in the world.

For the first time in 30 years we passed on-time, balanced budgets three years in a row. That led two credit agencies to raise the state’s credit rating—saving tens of millions of dollars per year in interest payments that can certainly be put to better use.

T: You mentioned Education as one of California’s most important priorities. How did education fare in 2013?

P: This year, we were able to increase our investment in K-12 education by an additional $2.1 billion.

We also passed a comprehensive reform to our school funding formula to put more money in the districts that need it most—districts with a high percentage of low income students, or a large number of English learning students.

We invested $125 million more in the California State University system, $125 million more in the University of California, and $300 million more in community colleges.

We also made targeted investments to reduce California’s worst-in-the-nation child poverty rate because we know that we need to reach kids and have an impact at an early age to give them the best possible start in their education.

T: For two years you worked to pass the Middle Class Scholarship, which was finally approved this year. Why was that such a priority for you?

P: California universities have seen historically high fee hikes over the past 10 years, with tuition rates increasing by over 190 percent at UC and by about 145 percent at CSU. Financial aid programs have mitigated the impact of the fee increases on lower income and needy students, and we know there are many Californians who are fortunate enough to be able to pay for higher education completely out of pocket. But middle-income students have been left having to pay thousands of dollars more each year.

These fee increases have essentially become a massive middle class tax increase. By paying the increased fees, middle class families have much less to meet their other needs and less money is recycled into local economies. Most middle-income families turn to increased use of student loans to cover the fee hikes. These loans leave students further in debt, which financially strangles students upon graduation as they send large portions of their earnings to out of state banks instead of spending funds locally on things like buying a house.

Worst of all, some students simply find the fees too high and give up on the promise of higher education. That’s unacceptable. Turning students away from higher education is about the most damaging thing California can do to harm the long-term health of our economy.

I have to say the two years I spent working with students and families from around the state on the Middle Class Scholarship is one of the highlights of my time in the Assembly. It was inspiring to see the passion so many students bring to the issues of college access and affordability.

T: What does the Middle Class Scholarship do?

P: Beginning next fall, middle class students will begin to see relief in the cost of their UC and CSU tuition.

When fully implemented, the Middle Class Scholarship will effectively slash student fees at UC and CSU campuses by up to 40 percent for California families making under $100,000 per year and, on a sliding scale, 10 percent for families making under $150,000.

The state will increase spending on the Middle Class Scholarship each year until it is fully implemented in 2017-18. The program is scheduled to be phased in over a four-year period, with scholarships growing from 14 percent in 2014-15, to 20 percent in 2015-16, to 30 percent in 2016-17, and then 40% in 2017-18.

I do believe that if it is possible to accelerate the implementation of the Middle Class Scholarship that would be an appropriate use of one-time funds the state receives, and would help ensure that the most relief possible is provided to middle class students and their families.

T: What should families be doing to look ahead toward applying for a Middle Class Scholarship or other Financial Aid?

P: A good place to start is visiting http://asmdc.org and following the links to Funding Your College Future. The site has information and links regarding the Middle Class Scholarship as well as Cal Grants and other forms of financial aid. While the Middle Class Scholarship helps reduce fees for middle class families, many families are eligible for financial aid that covers the entire cost of fees and some living expenses.

Additionally, with the March 2, 2014 deadline to apply for a Cal Grant or Middle Class Scholarship coming up, many Assemblymembers will be hosting Funding Your College Future events in January and February to help students in their districts understand the state’s financial aid programs. Families should check with their local Assemblymember’s office to see if a “Funding Your College Future” event has been scheduled in their area.

T: I understand California is also partnering with the federal government to publicize a student loan forgiveness program. What can you tell us about that?

P: California wants to be the nation’s leader on college affordability. California already administers successful student debt relief programs through the Assumption Program of Loans for Education for teachers and nurses, the Thompson Physician Corps Loan Repayment Program, and we partner with AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. But we are committed to doing more to make college more affordable, and we recognize that finding ways to ease the burden on students who graduated with a mountain of debt must be part of the solution.

That’s why we are actively promoting the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which stands to benefit a wide range of Californians serving the public, including teachers, first responders, and public health workers.

California has 2.2 million state, local and public school employees. We have already begun talking to government entities at all levels to encourage them to promote the program and put in practice the annual certification of employment that is necessary for participants to obtain. And we are working with public employee unions as well to ensure that as many existing employees and new hires are made aware of the program and its benefits and requirements as possible.

T: This seems to be a period of change for colleges and universities. What do you see ahead for higher education in California?

P: This is a period of change. UC has a promising new President in Janet Napolitano, who has struck the right notes so far in reaching out to students, faculty and other stakeholders in the UC system. As this interview is going to print I’m preparing to speak at the inauguration of UC Berkeley’s new Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks. In the CSU system, 13 of the 23 campuses have had a presidential turnover in the last 3 years, including CSU Fresno and CSULA in 2013. CSU Long Beach is looking for a new President. The key is going to be in maximizing the ability of both the new and existing leadership in these systems to meet the challenges our universities are facing.

Improving transfer pathways for community college students is one challenge we must always make a priority. We made progress this year by enacting legislation that will increase the number Transfer Model Curriculum Templates that are approved by the California Community Colleges and the CSU. This will further standardize the general education classes needed for an Associate’s degree for certain majors, particularly in STEM education (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). One pressing issue that needs to be addressed in this area is the disproportional availability of transfers in different regions of the state.

There has been increased advocacy for more online learning, which could of course dramatically impact our higher education systems. While there is obviously much to explore in this area, I believe we have to be careful and data-driven in any decisions we make approving and implementing online learning programs.

Finally, we also need to work on ensuring a strong and positive climate on our campuses. Part of that is increasing diversity at UC and CSU campuses where it is lacking. I am also working with both UC President Napolitano and CSU Chancellor White on engaging campus police departments on issues such as making women feel safer on campus, response protocols regarding student protests, and protection of students’ First Amendment rights.

T: Thank you Speaker Pérez for taking the time to talk with Think Tank Learning Monthly Magazine.

T: It was my pleasure. And I’d like to take one more opportunity to remind your readers to check out http://asmdc.org for more information on the Middle Class Scholarship and other student aid.