SMC — Over the protests of angry students, Santa Monica College’s Board of Trustees passed a policy Tuesday night that will create a second tier of higher-cost classes to expand access to education in the wake of drastic state cuts.

The policy would establish open enrollment contract education at the college, which effectively means that students who choose to sign up for the classes will share in the entire cost of education, from teacher salaries to the price of facilities.

Rather than paying the $46 per unit fee associated with a normal course, the supplemental classes could cost upwards of $150 per unit, according to estimations on a state Assembly bill that sought to standardize the practice throughout California.

A group of students came to the meeting to protest the move, which they felt amounted to a privatization of public education.

School officials see it more as a Band-Aid on an open wound.

Since the 2008-09 school year, funding for the state community college system decreased by 13 percent. The situation could get worse in November if a tax initiative meant to funnel money to schools fails.

The system would face another 5.5 percent reduction in funding, which would equate to another $5 million missing from the SMC budget.

Reductions in state funding since 2008 have already forced the college to cut over 1,000 classes, which meant a lot of students were not getting the classes they needed to complete their education, said Dr. Chui Tsang, president of SMC.

Under the new program, if classes fill up, students could pay higher rates to take identical classes which otherwise would not be offered.

“We want to lay out our classes during the regular semester with the funding we have from the state,” Tsang said. “Then we’ll look at where the student demand has not been met, and where there’s more student demand, we’ll fill the shortage.”

Students can use their normal financial aid to help pay for the classes, and the college is already seeking donations for scholarships for those who can’t afford the steeper cost.

In the end, the board voted to increase access to education at a time when community colleges and universities are being forced to reduce, said trustee Louise Jaffe.

“If the state continues to not fund classes, would you rather have the opportunity to spend $250 per unit at SMC as opposed to $300 or $400 a unit at for-profits or a UC? That’s the question,” Jaffe said. “It’s what helps students, and what we can do for the students in the world we live in.”

The fact that the board approved the policy shows how tough things are for public education, said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the education advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity.

“Colleges have their backs up against the wall. You have critical demand for courses, and certainly have students willing to pay the full cost when California is not providing funding for colleges,” she said.

Still, many of the cuts from the state, including cuts to child care and other social services, have fallen on low-income people and minorities, she said.

Students called on administrators to take pay cuts and find other means to keep classes affordable.

The idea of privately-funded public classes isn’t new. In fact, SMC’s new policy draws inspiration from two local sources, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica).

SMMUSD works with its Education Foundation to provide summer school in a pay-to-play model created by school budget cuts.

Students pay a fee to take “get-ahead” classes, which used to be funded by the state before summer school budgets were slashed. Similarly, SMC will create a nonprofit to administer its new courses.

The program is almost identical to one proposed in a bill by Brownley, a former SMMUSD school board member, that would allow for the same system for every community college in California.

Assembly Bill 515 drew sharp criticism from teachers’ organizations which complained that it would create a two-tiered system that pits wealthier students against low-income students.

At the time, Brownley defended her bill saying that even at the higher cost, the community college courses were cheaper than those at for-profit institutions.

That bill died in the State Senate, leaving SMC to go forward on its own.

Officials hope to have the new system in place for summer 2012. It could expand to regular semesters in the future.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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