Lawmakers See the Costs and Seek to Abolish Calbright Online College

When California set aside $100 million to launch its first fully online community college, supporters led by the then governor. Jerry Brown said the school would prepare adults stuck in dead-end careers for the modern workforce.

After two years of stalled progress, state lawmakers — facing fiscal disaster and mounting complaints from faculty unions — are pushing to scrap the college altogether.

Calbright College, the online-only community college, has 526 students enrolled in its entry-level courses. Its current year budget of $20 million equates to about $38,000 per student, though the college says it is striving to grow rapidly.

The first president of the college, Heather Hile, abruptly resigned after less than a year on the job. And the school has struggled to recruit full-time teachers.

Meanwhile, Calbright is sitting on $117 million, largely leftover from its start-up fund, and would get another $17 million this year under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget — even as the State tries to fill a deficit of 54.3 billion dollars.

Lawmakers have other ideas. A budget plan drawn up last week by Assembly and Senate leaders would eliminate Calbright’s funding and use its remaining surplus to save other programs. Lawmakers and the Newsom administration are negotiating a budget that the Legislative Assembly must pass on Monday or go without a salary.

Faculty unions call Calbright a botched experiment that replicates the work of traditional community colleges, which serve 2.1 million students and face severe budget cuts.

“We should say it was a failure,” said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents faculty members. “We want our local community colleges to do it, and they can do it.”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, he noted, “nearly every class at every community college has moved online.”

But Calbright has powerful defenders. Newsom’s administration said the pandemic has underscored the need for remote learning and “makes an even more compelling case” for Calbright. The governor wants to continue funding the online school, minus a $3 million cut to his budget.

A lawyer is the chancellor of community colleges Eloy Ortiz Oakley. He said lawmakers should accelerate online learning amid rising unemployment.

“Asking California Community Colleges to cannibalize some programs to save others is a choice I reject,” Oakley said in a statement.

He also framed Calbright’s funding in terms of racial justice, saying the majority of students in the community college system are people of color.

Lawmakers say the money for Calbright would be better spent supporting campuses serving large groups of students. As part of its budget plan, the state would take the $134 million Newsom is proposing to allocate to Calbright and use it to avoid cuts to programs such as student pantries, faculty salaries at part-time and apprenticeship teaching.

Impartiality The Office of the Legislative Analyst wrote in May that Calbright “has a very high cost per student, is currently unaccredited, and largely duplicates programs at other colleges.”

Deputy Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Budget Committee, said it doesn’t make sense to create a “whole new bureaucracy” for online learning. He said it “makes much more sense” to use the 114 established community colleges in California to expand distance learning.

“The idea itself has merit,” Ting said of the e-learning expansion. “But, for me, the way it was executed was very inefficient and very expensive.”

Ting said he was also concerned that Calbright had inflated its student numbers. For example, the college reports that 526 students have enrolled. But only 66 have completed a beginner and advanced level course in their core subject area.

“You have a public college and you can’t even get accurate enrollment information,” Ting said. “It’s concerning.”

Taylor Huckaby, a Calbright spokesperson, said the college began enrolling students less than a year ago and initially capped enrollment for a few months after it opened in October. He said Calbright aims to enroll 1,000 more students by fall.

“It’s a somewhat bad-faith argument that continues to come up,” Huckaby said of the registration numbers. “We have been around for a very short time.”

Calbright critics say that is precisely the point – it takes a long time to build a new college from the ground up and receive accreditation. Freitas, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, said existing community colleges could expand distance learning without having to hire an entire administrative team.

“At a fraction of that cost, our current community colleges could do it,” he said. “It’s competing with our local community college instead of investing.”

Calbright also drew attention to his expenses. Its first CEO, Hiles, who previously worked as a spokesperson during Newsom’s 2003 mayoral campaign in San Francisco, received a base salary of $385,000 and an annual car allowance of $10,000.

Hiles resigned in January, after an 11-month tenure that sparked controversy, including a no-tender contract she pushed for a friend and a politically connected executive recruiter.

Acting College President, Ajita Talwalker Menon, is paid much less, about $258,000 a year. Calbright also has three deans and a management team. There are currently two full-time faculty members on contract and nine part-time instructors.

Huckaby said the college plans to hire seven faculty members this summer, pending college board approval. He said Calbright aims to enroll 5,600 students by 2023.

Calbright also spent heavily to protect his image at the Sacramento Capitol. According to disclosure forms, the college has spent more than $141,000 on contract lobbyists since the start of 2019. It also recently hired a public relations firm, at $240,000 a year.

Lawmakers have long been skeptical of the online-only school and initially resisted Brown’s proposal to fund the college in 2018. The former governor won that fight, despite union opposition of teachers.

The college also has a limited curriculum. Students must complete one of three program tracks: medical coding, computer science, and cybersecurity.

The programs are designed to teach students skills in a skill set, not necessarily to help them earn a specific degree, though Calbright says it can be a bridge to connect students to traditional colleges.

The college was supposed to follow an aggressive schedule and rapidly develop a new approach to online learning. Lawmakers say they are done with the experiment.

“It looks like it could be done smarter,” Ting said. “There is no question.”

(c) 2020 San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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