"Education rescued me": A conversation with Mike Eng

Former Monterey Park mayor and California State Assemblyman Mike Eng almost dropped out of high school. With bad grades and a poor conduct record, Eng did not think he would graduate. But teachers and counselors at his public high school in Hawaii developed a plan for him to finish school and go on to college. Eng says the education system saved him, and now he wants to save the education system. 

After hitting the six-year term limit in the state assembly, Eng was elected March 5 to the Board of Trustees for the Los Angeles Community College Districtthe largest community college district in the country. The board presides over nine colleges, serving 250,000 students in 40 cities. Eng, an immigration lawyer and the husband of Congresswoman Judy Chu, sat down with us at Alhambra's Diner on Main to talk about restoring education budget cuts, his priorities as a Board of Trustees member, and what education means to him.

Why did you decide to run for the L.A. Community College District Board of Trustees? 

Eng speaking to youth at one of his last appearances in the state capital as an assemblyman | Photo from the office of MIke Eng

When I decided to run for the board, a lot of people said, "Mike, what a step down. What is your real goal? That looks like you just want to hang your shingle for a few years and look for something else."

I was so insulted. When I was growing up, I was an at-risk kid, a troubled youth. I had bad grades, got into fights. I developed a program with my teachers, counselors, and parents. I never thought I would graduate from high school but I actually did. I went on to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Hawaii and a law degree from UCLA. The education system rescued me and community colleges rescue students all the time.

Community college students are generally the most at-risk students in higher education. They generally have the lower test scores and come from immigrant families where English is not spoken at home. They're working part-time, full-time, half-time. We have to educate them because they are the promise that we made many years ago to working-class families, that we will allow them to move into the middle class and beyond if they wanted.

How has your experience on Monterey Park City Council and in California State Assembly prepared you to work in education?

I sat for six years on our state’s education committee. We provided leadership at a time when the economy was going down the drain. Almost every year I served in the legislature, we had to cut up to $25 billion dollars from the state budget. Education took a huge hit. That made restoring funding one of my top priorities.

When you cut education, you become very aware of the consequences. I would say the number one group to visit me in Sacramento and Southern California was the education community. I don’t think there was a day that passed that I didn’t get visited by teachers, administrators, parents, students, businesses, the non-profit community, law enforcement. They all begged us not to cut education.

How would you restore education funding? 

Well, I think Prop 30 is a very good start. It’s a considerable amount of money to education. The economy has also started performing at the old rate. In the first three months of 2013, we had a revenue increase of $5 billion dollars. It was more than what we thought we were going to get, and it's continuing to increase. I think we have to look at where we were before we went into an economic downfall. Even if we got back to that, we're still way behind other states. But that's a good start.

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Wednesday that will tie federal student loan interest rates to the financial market and gradually raise rates over the coming years. The bill is an answer to a brief but controversial doubling of federal loan rates to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent on July 1. How do you feel about student loan rates?

I applaud the federal government's decision to reduce the interest rate, but I think it's only good in the short run. I'm critical of the part where it goes up when the economy gets better. We need to work with the White House and Congress to develop a long-term solution. Also, I'm working with the California Student Aid Commission to improve outreach to students about loans. Not many community college students know that there are a lot of resources out there. 

Press conference in Alhambra to encourage immigration reform | Photo from the office of Mike Eng

Other than restoring funding, what are your other goals for your time on the Board of Trustees?

Adult education is extremely important to our area. We have a lot of immigrant parents and relatives of K-12 students who attend adult education. And we have cut back to the bone.

I'm also in the process of visiting all 12 of the K-12 systems that feed into L.A. community colleges. One high school official said, "Wouldn’t it be great if students could earn the equivalent of a community college associate degree when they graduate from high school?"

I came to the conclusion that we're part of a K-14 system, if not a K-16 system. Why not challenge students to do better? Some people are going to get the equivalent of a high school diploma. But what if they want to take courses that are sanctioned and produced in conjunction with a community college so they end up with a community college degree? I know it's going to cost money, but I'd like to pursue that idea with them.

The governor appoints a board of trustees to run the California State University system, regents to lead the University of California system, and a board of governors to lead California’s community colleges. But California's community colleges also have a board of trustees elected by the public. How do you feel about these different forms of governance?

I don't want to criticize anybody, but if you're a CSU or UC trustee, you don't necessarily get involved in shared governance because the voters act through the governor. That's kind of an indirect way of governance.

Residents vote for the community college board of trustees. The majority of the teachers, students, parents, faculty, and administrators live in the very district that we have to run in. So we have to consult everybody before we govern. I think that's what it's all about. I want people to have access to me and I want to have access to their ideas.

What is your advice for students?

High school students should visualize where they're going to be and actualize. Visit a college that's close to you, talk to some students and find out their views, go to the school’s website. Go there and find out what it has to offer.

People have a stereotype with community colleges. I think it will blow their mind when they discover what community college has to offer. It's like buying a car — it’s expensive, they see it on TV. And then they do a test drive of the other brand that isn't advertised a lot and say, "Wow, this car really meets my needs. Why am I listening to all the hype?"

What is your favorite school memory?

Eng in Diner or Main | Photo by Alfred Dicioco

My favorite memory was working on the school newspaper. We never went to sleep. We always had a deadline that we were running up against. I liked it because it was a really nice team effort and most of my life up until then was being a loner, not working too well with other people. I think it was good training for life because life is all about deadlines. Life is all about working together.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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