When you think about the various public goods that taxes support, certainly public colleges and universities are high on the list. The availability of higher education opportunities at great public universities was one of the drivers of economic growth in the post-WW II era--through the GI bill , through direct subsidies from state coffers, and through indirect subsidies through federal funding for basic research. Today more than ever it is clear that opportunities for education are important to the ability of individuals to climb out of poverty or near-poverty and become productive members of society. Public education in particular is important to this endeavor, since private institutions have tended to have higher tuition.
But these days, it is becoming harder for public institutions to offer the kind of education that they have been known for, because state support has declined to very low levels. Whereas in the past state schools got the large majority of their financing from the state and were able to keep tuition levels low, today the typical state school may receive no more than 30% of its funding from the state, relying on private fundraising and tuition, in addition to federal and private funding for research, to bridge the gap.
California is now at a crisis decision point regarding its public universities--schools that have stood among the most elite in the nation, yet because of the state support permitting Californians (and outstaters) to get superb educations at reasonable cost. Now the state university system has cut class sizes and course offerings while increasing tuition, and it could get even worse if Californians aren't willing to tax themselves to support this important public good. See California Cuts Threaten the Status of Universities, New York Times (June 2, 2012), available here http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/02/us/california-cuts-threaten-the-status-of-universities.html (the link function is temporarily missing from my typepad account). California universities used to have extremely low tuition, but cuts to state funding have meant that this year revenues from tuition exceed revenues provided by the state (a position many state universities reached years ago). As a result, libraries, student services (like academic advising), and student health care have been shortchanged already.
A modest tax increase could make a huge difference. But the constant drumbeat about cutting taxes and spending has invigorated the taxpayer groups that don't want to fund higher education until they are personally convinced that no money is being wasted. That's a foolish standard: there's no consensus on what amounts to "waste" in higher education spending, and even if there are still some things that could (and maybe even should) be cut--such as excessive administrative salaries, those things generally won't be enough to forestall the real degradation in educational opportunity if the short-term thinking leading to year-after-year of cuts continues. The suggestion in the article (by the President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association) that college funding by the state should only extend to programs that directly benefit the states shows the poverty of understanding that such groups have for the value added by education to a state.