My turn: Here’s one way Newsom can be rural California’s governor

By Joe Rodota, Special to CALmatters

The Camp Fire was the most destructive and deadliest fire in state history, and the world’s costliest natural disaster of 2018. The fire destroyed more than 18,000 homes and businesses and caused $16.5 billion in damages in Butte County. In Shasta County farther north, the Carr Fire destroyed over 1,000 homes in nearby and caused an additional $1.5 billion in damage.

The devastation only adds to the ongoing struggles of Californians living in a region of the state seemingly a world away from the booming coastal economies.

Per capita income in the Redding, Chico and Yuba City area was just a third of the Bay Area region in 2016. The Public Policy Institute of California reports that the entire northern third of the state has seen no change in its poverty rate since 2011.

Such stagnation makes college attainment more challenging for the region’s high school graduates. The Oakland-based Children Now found that Lassen County had the smallest rate of college- or career-ready students in the state, followed by four other Northern California counties – Glenn, Trinity, Tehama and Del Norte.

In response to the devastating wildfires, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed tens of millions to help local governments recover tax revenues, and $19 million in direct aid to school districts affected by the disasters.

If Newsom really wants to change the direction of the state’s long-neglected northern region, he’ll need to do more.

He included $2 million in his 2019-20 budget to review options for a new California State University campus in San Joaquin County, likely in Stockton, 135 miles from Paradise, the epicenter of the Camp Fire.

The governor’s proposal should be expanded to include study of another potential campus: a Cal Poly for Northern California.

Just three of the 23 California State University campuses, Sonoma, Humboldt and Chico, are located in the northern third of the state, and there’s no University of California campus north of Davis. The only public post-secondary institution in over 10,000 square miles of the northern third of the state is Shasta Community College.

The California State University system includes two polytechnic campuses: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which opened in 1901, and Cal Poly Pomona, which came into its own in 1966. They enroll a total of 47,000 students who follow a “learn by doing” curriculum focused on physical sciences, business and economics, with 28 percent of students enrolled in engineering programs and another 13 percent enrolled in science and math.

Notably, less than 1 percent of the 2018 student body at the two polytechnic colleges come from the northernmost 18 counties.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s four-year graduation rate is better than any other CSU campus and is consistently ranked as one of the best public schools in the state. And a Cal Poly degree is a relative bargain: Tuition and student fees at Cal Poly are $9,400 per year, compared to more than $14,000 at UC Berkeley.

A new Cal Poly campus in Northern California would:

  • Boost the regional economy. Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo generates over $1 billion a year in economic activity for the surrounding region. In recent years, the school has helped transform an otherwise sleepy pocket of the central coast into a booming outpost for Silicon Valley, drawing more than 7,800 tech workers to the region. A Cal Poly-North could attract jobs, money, and a cutting-edge tech sector to a region where students would pay far lower housing prices than in Los Angeles or the Bay Area.
  • Address student demand. Cal Poly campuses are wildly popular among college-bound California high school seniors The two campuses receive over 100,000 freshman and undergraduate transfer applications per year, but reject nearly 60 percent of these potential students. Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo alone rejected more than 10,000 first-time freshmen with a grade point average of 4.0 or higher.

At the turn of the previous century, journalist Myron Angel proposed a “polytechnical school” to offer technical training in math and sciences to California’s students. A college dropout who came to California during the Gold Rush with no money, Angel envisioned a university that would “teach the hand as well as the head, so that no young man or young woman will be sent off in the world to earn their living as poorly equipped for the task as I when I landed in San Francisco in 1849.”

In his inaugural address, Gov. Newsom promised to be a governor for rural California.

“Many in our rural communities believe that Sacramento doesn’t care about them – doesn’t even really see them” he said. “Well, I see you.”

It’s time to look at Northern California’s educational needs with fresh eyes.


Joseph Rodota, a Sacramento consultant, was cabinet secretary and deputy chief of staff to Gov. Pete Wilson, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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