A show of resistance against education cuts

March 1, 2012

Melissa Cornelius and Michael Fiorentino report on plans for protests in California.

THOUSANDS OF California students, teachers and faculty, and community members will begin a series of protests March 1 against cuts in education spending, culminating with demonstrations in Sacramento on March 5 and a plan to occupy the state Capitol building.

The case for protesting couldn't be stronger. California is now 46th in spending on public education. The K-12 system has been ravaged by the budget crisis. K-3 class sizes in 16 of the state's 30 largest districts increased from 20 students to 25 between 2009 and 2011--and that's on top of cuts to special services and the arts.

Meanwhile, college students are being priced out of access to quality public education, and faculty and staff are undergoing pay cuts and layoffs. Tuition at the 10 campuses in the University of California (UC) system has more than doubled since 2000, while classes and even whole majors have been cut out.

"The thousands of people who will occupy the Capitol with a People's Assembly will put grassroots democracy in action," said Charlie Eaton, financial secretary of United Auto Workers Local 2865 and a sociology graduate student at UC Berkeley.

California students march against corporatization and cuts to public higher education
California students march against corporatization and cuts to public higher education (Steve Rhodes)

Eaton talked about the plans for the days of action, which include promoting an initiative of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) for a "millionaire's tax" to raise taxes on the rich:

We'll have the debate we really need about who should pay to refund jobs, education, essential services and a better world. We'll debate the real alternatives like the 'millionaire's tax' for a budget that makes the 1 percent pay. And we'll talk about how that money should be used from the bottom up to reverse tuition hikes and cuts.

Students are being pushed to the edge by the cutbacks and spiraling costs of education.

I'm in default on $27,000 in debt owed to San Francisco State University. And I have no degree to show for it. Collection agencies hired by the state are threatening to garnish my already poverty-level wages.

What's wrong with the people who run California? This state's public universities used to be free, but I don't know if I'll ever be able to afford to finish my education now.

Students at the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system have seen tuition and fees soar from just under $2,000 in 2000 to more than $6,000 today.

Meanwhile, wages and benefits for instructors have stagnated. In response, the California Faculty Association is considering a one-day, system-wide general strike. Faculty members already participated in a one-day strike in November at CSU-East Bay and CSU-Dominiguez Hills.

Community colleges are also getting hammered. They are cutting classes that help a significant segment of the working class, such as English as a Second Language, parenting and vocational programs.

IN THE K-12 system, the effects of the budget crisis stare teachers in the face every day.

"My small alternative school, which used to provide students and teachers with very small classes so that we could work closely together, now has English classes with up to 45 students," said David Rapkin, who teaches at a high school in South Los Angeles. "With so little attention, kids who were already struggling fall further behind."

Unfortunately, leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) haven't sought to mobilize union members for the latest round of protests. Nevertheless, groups of union activists have pushed ahead on their own, said UTLA member Sarah Knopp.

"The district has been threatening to lay off all pre-K teachers," Knopp said. "Teachers and parents at the early childhood centers, with the help of the UTLA Central Area organization, have initiated a series of demonstrations to save their program. They have called for a demonstration May 1 at the house of Monica Garcia, the president of the LA school board."

While solidarity actions will take place statewide, Northern California teachers' unions and labor allies are at the center of the action. As teacher Jessie Muldoon described:

The mood around March 1 through March 5 is hopeful, but Oakland teachers are fighting several local battles against our school district, as we attempt to re-start contract negotiations. The Oakland Unified School District is making a concerted effort to circumvent important contract provisions in the area of school staffing.

This is a crucial area for us right now, as OUSD has slated five schools for closure at the end of this school year, and has as its stated goal the closure of many more over the next couple years. Currently, teachers from closed schools have some provisions in our contract that enable them to be placed, in order of seniority, at a different site. These provisions are under attack.

In neighboring Berkeley, members of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) are also gearing up for the protest.

"Parents, students and teachers will be marching together from all 11 elementary schools and three middle schools, and several schools have planned rallies at their sites after lunch, in addition to the march to highlight the attacks on public schools and support the millionaire's tax," said Berkeley teacher Dana Blanchard.

The BFT has also donated $5,000 of its PAC money towards buses for the March 5 protest in Sacramento, and at least a dozen Berkeley teachers will be on them, Blanchard said.

The union has also advocated for the millionaire's tax and the March 1 day of action and March 5 occupation through the Alameda Labor Council, which represents over 100,000 local unionized workers in the East Bay. The result is that some 20 union buses are set to go to Sacramento to support the action.

Smaller unions in Northern California are gearing up to fight the cuts--not only at the statewide level, but in their districts. As John Green, president of the Castro Valley Teachers Association, said:

We've been planning for a demonstration on March 1 for over two months, but now, it's really gathering steam because our school board announced big potential layoffs that would further increase elementary class sizes in grades K through 3 and halve the number of elementary physical education specialists in our district.

THE CUTS to public education have gone in hand with an overall attack on public services that working class and poor Californians rely on. Some $678 million is set to be cut from Medi-Cal, California's version of Medicaid. Another $168 million will be gouged out of In-Home Supportive Services, and $1 billion from CalWORKs, which provides cash aid and services to needy California families.

The struggle against austerity in California is part of a national fightback. Thus, on March 1, there are plans for rallies, marches, walkouts and campus shutdowns in other cities across the U.S.

Unfortunately, the March 5 protest in California is also being used to drum up support for the Democratic Party. A message of support for Gov. Jerry Brown's regressive tax measure--billed as more "realistic" than the millionaire's tax--will emanate from the tightly controlled stage.

However, the CFT has helped open up the debate on how to fight back by pushing the millionaire's tax, which would exclusively target those making $1 million or more, and would not increase taxes on workers and the poor. A recent article from the San Francisco Chronicle makes it clear that while the public supports both tax initiatives, support for the millionaire's tax is higher.

As Dana Blanchard said, the millionaire's tax "gives our movement a clear alternative to Jerry Brown's regressive tax measure and his overall austerity budget. Even if Jerry Brown's best case budget passes, school busing for K-12 will come to end."

If Brown's tax initiative isn't passed by the legislature, it will trigger cuts of $5.5 billion, with $4.8 billion coming from education. By tying public education funding to his tax plan, Brown is effectively holding Californians hostage.

But many union militants, students and Occupy movement activists refuse to accept this choice. On March 5, the Occupy Education Northern California network will mobilize for the mass rally. Occupy Education plans to use hundreds of field organizers to build a general assembly in Sacramento that will offer to an alternative to the pro-Democratic Party message coming the stage. Activists hope to use the momentum generated during the day to attempt a mass occupation of the Capitol building.

By linking students, educators, labor and the Occupy movement, the March 1-5 days of action have the potential to reassert the struggle of the 99 percent.

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