Standing up for public education

March 24, 2009

Steven Damewood reports on a recent rally shows that students and teachers are willing to fight to protect public education in California.

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--In the latest in a series of spreading protests against budget cuts in California, students, faculty and activists from all over the state gathered at the Capitol building March 16 to protest cuts to the public education system and proposals to increase tuition fees for community colleges.

Students arrived in buses from colleges throughout the state, including Modesto, Fresno, the Bay Area, San Diego and the Los Angeles area. At least 80 of California's 110 community colleges were represented. More than 40 buses arrived from the City College of San Francisco, where students had been organizing for the trip for more than a month.

California wants to cut some $8 billion out of the public education budget, from kindergarten to community colleges. The California Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended that community colleges raise their fees to make up for budget shortfalls. Their proposal would increase tuition by at least $10 a unit.

These cuts will mean layoffs, and fewer classes and resources for students. Additionally, further increases in fees will discourage students already squeezed by the economic crisis from enrolling.

While officials from the California community colleges organized the protest narrowly around the issue of the community college system budget, many of the students who attended came with more far-reaching demands. Students carried signs stating "Education is a right," and more than one speaker at the rally reminded the crowd that community colleges were free in California only a generation ago.

In their coverage of the march in Sacramento, the media were quick to point out that even if the recommended tuition increase was adopted, community colleges in the state would still be less costly than in most other states.

This misses the bigger picture--that this attack on community colleges is part of an all-out assault on public education.

Both of California's other systems of higher education-- the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) systems--are expected to increase their tuitions by 10 percent. The UC Regents have announced that admissions have decreased by 6 percent, and the CSU system is set to cut enrollment by 10,000 full-time students.

The cuts to the community college system mean that a lot of California students will have no real options for affordable higher education. Future protests will need to connect the attacks at every level of public education and all three college systems, and raise the demand for affordable education for everyone.

The rally in Sacramento demonstrated that students and teachers are willing to fight to protect public education in California and shows the potential for organizing to push back that attack.

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