California Students Rise Up to Fight for Public Education

The following post was written by UC Berkeley student Sarah Leadem and Los Angeles Valley College student Marcos Perez. Both of them were a part of the March in March and occupation of the capitol in Sacramento, CA.

On Monday, March 5th, over 10,000 students from K-12 schools, community colleges, state universities, and the U.C. system converged on the state capitol in Sacramento to demand state funding for the California public education system. Students marched and rallied outside the capitol building in one of the biggest student demonstrations for public education in recent California history as part of the “March in March” organized by the University of California Student Association. Sydney Fang, a student senator at U.C. Berkeley and member of the U.C. Berkeley USAS affiliate, Labor Justice Project, addressed the crowd of rallying students with cries of “Education is a right, not a privilege!” and “Enough is enough!”

At about 1PM, an estimated 500 student protesters entered the capitol building to stage an occupation as part of “Occupy the Capitol”–a statewide day of action aimed to escalate the demands for a fully funded and universal public education system in the state of California. Occupy the Capitol was organized by the Refund California Coalition–a statewide coalition comprised of several major labor unions, the Occupy Education network, and United Students Against Sweatshops. Despite a blockade made by the California Highway Patrol to block access to the rotunda, approximately 60 students were able to stage an occupation at the center rotunda while hundreds of students crowed the hallways of the capitol building, staging general assemblies to bring unity through shared demands. Students, workers, and community members collectively drafted six core demands:

1) Support and pass the Millionaire’s Tax–a piece of statewide legislation that would levy taxes on the highest earners in California earmarked for the CA public education system.

2) Cancel all student debt

3) Democratize the UC Regents, CSU Trustees and Board of Directors–the governing bodies for the various levels of the public higher education system which are filled with government bureaucrats and corporate executives appointed by the state governor.

4) Fully fund all levels of public education

5) Amend Proposition 13–a ballot initiative passed in 1978 that decreased property taxes designed for homeowners but which has allowed corporations and businesses to operate without paying property taxes and has devastated local economies and school districts.

6) Full and equal access to education for undocumented students

At about 9PM, 70 occupiers were arrested by the Sacramento Police Department, cited, and then released in a Walmart parking lot in West Sacramento. Luckily, Refund California organizers were ready to meet them with warm pizza and transportation back to a local church that provided housing for the night.

This day of action aimed to escalate the growing statewide movement to refund the public education system and bring an end to budget cut backs born the backs of students and workers in the state. Over the last decade, the California legislature has made dramatic cuts to education across the board–ranging from K-12, community colleges, and both state and U.C. universities.

Over the past four years, tuition throughout the U.C. universities has increased by 134% and the U.C. Regents are contemplating an 81% fee increase to be enforced incrementally over the next four years. This proposal was stalled by massive protests by over 400 students U.C. Riverside–many of which are members of the growing USAS affiliate–that were brutally repressed by strong police intervention but the proposal has yet to be fully dismissed.

At the state universities, $750 million in budget cuts have meant cuts in classes for students, faculty and worker furloughs, and enrollment caps that limit the number of students who can attend the CSU. As if things weren’t bad enough, students have seen their tuition go up by over 23% in 2011, while the new president of the San Diego State University gets a $100,000 bonus! When outraged students, workers, and community members demanded the CSU Board of Trustees to reject any proposal that hurts students and working and middle class families, the Trustees’ response was to raise student tuition behind closed doors and send police officers to pepper spray and arrest anyone who wanted to get inside the meeting.

Since 2009, California’s 112 Community Colleges have lost $769 million in state funding, which has translated into severe reductions in classes, student services, and hiring freezes. To add insult to injury, student fees have more than doubled from $600 a year to $1,380 a year. After years of using students, workers, and teachers as their personal ATM, students at several community colleges in Los Angeles are fighting back against these austerity measures, demanding that their college presidents and Trustees cut their own perks and support legislation like the Millionaires’ Tax.

Currently the California governor, Jerry Brown, is pushing a budget proposal that moderately increases income taxes for people who make over $250,000 and increases sales tax throughout the state; these budget changes would make a marginal impact on refunding public education and would force working and middle income families to pay more in sales taxes to fund education. These moderate reforms are proposed amidst the continued concentration of wealth among the top 1% of income earners and both corporate tax loopholes and massive government bailouts enjoyed by the big banks and corporations that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

Though the thousands of people who traveled to Sacramento had many reasons why they made the journey to the Capitol, one thing is clear: the need for students, teachers, and workers to unite against the state’s harsh austerity measures and the influence corporate executives and Wall Street moguls wield in the UC Regents and CSU Trustees is more urgent than ever before. There will be more meetings, and therefore more opportunities for all of us to directly challenge the corporate agenda these college presidents, Trustees, Regents, and state legislators seem hell bent on pursuing. The fight is on for the future of California, as well as the future of the many people who live in it. What that future will look like depends on us; we can sit down and accept the changes they want, or we can stand up and FIGHT BACK!