Californians by the tens of thousands spoke as one yesterday demanding the primacy of public education in the state’s budget. Up and down the state, students held scores of demonstrations, rallies, marches and teach-ins at governmental centers, universities, community colleges, high schools and elementary schools.
The actions come as the 2010-2011 budget process looms and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, after promising in January to increase education funding, instead cut $2.5 billion from education in his budget proposal.
In Sacramento, several thousand students, teachers and workers rallied on the steps of the Capitol building, spilling out over the grassy mall. They demanded state legislators and the governor fully fund public education and make it affordable and accessible to all.
State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D) and Assembly Speaker Manuel Perez (D), as well as several other legislators, pledged support for funding education. Assembly member Alberto Torrico (D) made a pitch for support of his bill that would create a 12.5 percent tax on oil extracted in the state to raise $2 billion a year for public education. He noted that California is the only state in the nation that doesn’t charge such a fee and that oil companies shouldn’t be getting off the hook while education suffers.
In former President George W. Bush’s Texas they raise $400 million per year from an oil extraction tax. Even in Sarah Palin’s Alaska, oil companies get charged a 25 percent fee. The bill, AB 656, says there will be no more free ride for big oil.
Praising the student activists as “troublemakers,” Bill Camp, executive director of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, pointed a finger at the culprits.
They destroyed this economy with their unrestrained greed, and we aren’t going to let them get away with it. Let us never forget who put this country in this position and who we’re coming after—Wall Street!
UC Berkeley student Wendy Brown blamed education’s financial woes directly on the anti-tax measure called Prop. 13 and the anti-tax political culture in the state. She said it’s not the consequence of the state being poor. “The state is very rich in resources and very rich in the rich,” she said, advocating taxing the wealthy and corporations.
Without education there is no substance to the promise of equality and freedom.
UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff is promoting a ballot initiative to do away with California’s Prop. 13’s requirement of a two-thirds vote to pass the state budget and any tax measures, the only such law in the country. He noted that previous speakers had asserted that democracy needs public education.
But education needs democracy. Now we have minority rule, not democracy.
He noted that 37 percent of the legislators—the Republicans—keep the majority from raising revenues to fund the state’s necessary functions. He urged the students to get on Facebook and viral the petitions for the initiative and gather signatures.
Californians have long understood the importance of education funding. Back in 1988 voters passed Prop. 98, mandating that 40 percent of the state’s budget would go to public education, ranging from pre-kindergarten to community college. In 2004, the education community agreed to allow Schwarzenegger to borrow $2 billion from those funds to help balance the budget with the promise it would be repaid the next year. In January 2005, Schwarzenegger broke that promise. Since then, Schwarzenegger again cut education funding in FY 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 by $18 billion when factoring in the cost of living adjustments structured in Prop. 98.
Class sizes are increasing dramatically in kindergarten to 12th grade—from 20 to as many as 33—while extracurricular and arts and music classes disappear.
Students are being turned away from the California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) campuses for lack of funding, many classes are overcrowded or unavailable, lecturers are being laid off, employees furloughed and fees for those systems as well as at community colleges are skyrocketing, putting the promise of education out of reach for the state’s poor and minority communities. For example, just last year alone UC fees rose by 40 percent to more than $10,000 per year. And Schwarzenegger’s latest budget proposal seeks more increases.
The March 4 Day of Action to Defend Public Education was conceived at an education conference at UC Berkeley in October attended by about 1,000 students and teachers. The idea spread throughout California, becoming a national movement with actions in 34 states.
At UC and CSU campuses, students and faculty walked out of classes and held rallies and demonstrations. At UC Santa Cruz, they shut down the school for the day.
In the Bay Area, students at UC Berkeley rallied on campus in the morning, then marched several miles to Oakland City Hall for another 2,000-strong demonstration. There they boarded BART light rail to San Francisco for a 5 p.m. rally at City Hall Plaza, joining many thousands from universities, community colleges, local high schools and elementary schools in a raucous rally.
No politicians were allowed to take the stage—only students, faculty and workers spoke.
The colorful creativity of the picket signs and banners in San Francisco ran the gamut from sloganeering to rhythms and rhymes to perennial favorite sarcasm. My favorites were one that read “Upside Down Sign” and was affixed to its stick that way and another simply hand-lettered one that said, “I couldn’t afford a real sign.”
Speakers made the point that March 4 was only the beginning of the public education movement. More large demonstrations are planned for March 22, including a blitz visit to state legislators in Sacramento.
Today, the education coalition will begin a 250-mile march up the state, starting at California State University, Bakersfield, and going up the Central Valley to arrive in Sacramento on April 21. Along the way, they will hold rallies and media events to publicize the cause and build support.