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In Sacramento, protesters lobby for lawmakers’ attention

on March 4, 2010

As California lawmakers debated budget fixes on the Senate floor, hundreds of students, teachers and parents from California school systems—K-12 through the University of California—gathered on the Capitol’s north steps to protest cuts to public education. With chants of “Yes we can” and “Si se Puede,” protesters asked lawmakers to increase funding for schools.

“We’re not racing to the top,” said Dean Murakami, a professor at American River College. “We’ve hit bottom and we can’t get up.”

“How are we going to save the future if we can’t even get into our classes,” President of the Student Senate at the California Community Colleges Reid Milburn, asked the cheering crowd.

Dubbed “Educate the State,” the rally was one of many events planned across California for the March 4 “day of action” to protest cuts to public education. A weak economy, falling tax revenues and home prices, and a budget deficit that could reach up to $21 billion next year pushed lawmakers to make deep cuts across the budget, and education took a big hit. Organizers called the joint action between public schools of all levels “historic” and “unprecedented.”

“What’s going on today is something that has never happened before,” said Cecil E. Canton, associate vice president and chair of the Council for Affirmative Action at the California Faculty Association. “We’ve got to stand up together. Public education is worth saving, and if we don’t, we’re denying millions the American dream.”

“Investment in public education is investment in our future,” said Kevin Wehr, a sociology professor at California State University Sacramento (CSUS), and a member of the school’s chapter of the CFA. “This is an investment that has many dividends.”

The California State University Sacramento chapter of the CFA planned the event and invited groups from the Berkeley, Davis and Santa Cruz UC campuses, several CSUs and community colleges, and the Sacramento City Unified School District.

Ten buses ferried students and teachers from UC Berkeley and Santa Cruz, a group of about 500 people, according to Greg Levine, a Berkeley art history professor and member of a group called Save the University. According to student Christina Price, the students at Santa Cruz had gotten up at 5 a.m. to rally and get on the buses.

During speeches, protestors raised their fists in solidarity and carried signs that said “save the CSUs,” “32 percent more for ten percent less” and “viva la public.” Students rewrote the words to the Beastie Boys song “Fight for Your Right to Party,” singing “fight for your right to college,” while professors from UC Santa Cruz played their guitars and led the crowd in a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” A Sac State professor did a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneaches,” explaining that Seuss had been rejected 27 times before being published—a lesson for students to keep fighting.

Robert Graham, a fifth year CSUS student majoring in political science, said he decided to join the protest movement when friends and classmates started leaving school because they couldn’t pay their tuition. Graham is one of the CFA’s three paid student organizers. “This is for our brothers and sisters, the kids still in high school,” he said. “If we don’t do something now to stop the hikes, the budget cuts and the capped enrollment, they won’t have a public education system to go to.”

“This is the first time I’ve protested anything in my life,” said Will Coleman, a grad student in Berkeley’s art history program. A graduate of Haverford College and Oxford University, he turned down Ivy League schools to attend public school for the first time.  “It’s easy to think that grad students are isolated, so one would think that I don’t have a stake,” he said. “But this university is not only a national, but an international resource,” he said.

Two issues came up repeatedly in the protesters’ speeches—the amount of money that funds the corrections department and the two-thirds majority required to pass the budget.  “We can’t afford to throw our budget away on prisons,” said Wehr, the event’s main organizer. “We might as well just bury the money.”

At one point during the rally, protesters started chanting “education, not incarceration.”

In the 2010-2011 proposed state budget, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has allocated $12.6 billion, or 10.6 percent of the state budget to higher education, while $8 billion, or 6.8 percent of the budget is allocated to corrections and rehabilitation.

In his speech, Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff the stipulation that requires California budgets to be passed with a two-thirds majority, saying that a 37 percent minority controls the state. Protesters responded by chanting “End two-thirds!”

A few lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Senator Leland Yee and Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico came out to the rally to express solidarity with the students. “Let this be the year that we restore the dream around public education,” Steinberg said, eliciting cheers and applause from the crowd.

Torrico used the moment to promote his assembly bill, AB656, which would tax oil companies for extracting oil from the state and funnel the money into education. “I will no longer be part of the band here in Sacramento that’s heading us down a path of mediocrity,” he said. Torrico also solicited volunteers to help gather signatures in support of the bill on college campuses.

But, though the protesters did get some attention from lawmakers, many of the speakers told the crowd that they needed to continue with their rallies. Community colleges are already planning another rally on March 22. “Advocacy is not a one-day event,” Milburn said. “On the 22nd, we will be back here marching again.”

“They’re in the process of dealing with this budget now and we need to do this now,” said the CFA’s Canton. “There’s a saying—if you’re not at the table, you’re on it.”

1 Comment

  1. […] more than a thousand students, faculty members and other education advocates rallying outside the state capitol, Democrats seized on the opportunity to voice their support for revenue-raising measures, including […]

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