Oakland Unified School District holds rally to support public education
on March 3, 2011
With some passing drivers honking to express support, dozens of teachers and students rallied in front of Oakland’s Elihu M. Harris State Building on Wednesday afternoon to protest the severe budget cuts awaiting school districts if Governor Jerry Brown’s tax extension proposal fails.
The protesters held up banners in English, Spanish and Chinese; many of those held by children were colorful drawings showing crying faces.
The rally, organized by the Oakland Unified School District, was part of a series of events called the “Day of Action in Defense of Public Education” in which parents, students and teachers protested throughout the state. In Oakland, all OUSD schools also carried out a “disaster drill” earlier in the day during which students and teachers were evacuated from their schools in response to fire alarms. The drill was meant to “symbolize the ‘state of emergency’ afflicting public education,” according to an OUSD statement.
“The message was loud and clear, people are tired of the budget cuts,” said Betty Olsen-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association, a co-sponsor of Wednesday’s events, during a brief press conference following the downtown protest. “We can’t keep cutting off one arm, one leg, one portion time after time.”
Governor Brown, whose budget proposal already contains cuts to education, wants to put a five-year extension of higher tax rates on the ballot this June to help fix the state’s $26 billion deficit. If passed, the extension, which is now opposed by Republican lawmakers, would generate $11 billion through June 2012 and up to $11 billion annually in subsequent years. However, if rejected by the voters, or if it fails to make it to a special election this summer, deeper cuts to K-12 education—where over 40 percent of the state’s general fund goes—are believed to be inevitable.
According to a poll released in January by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, 67 percent of interviewees said that it is a good idea to let voters decide whether to extend the tax increases.
Although California Watch, an investigative journalism initiative, reported that over 150 school districts have passed resolutions to back the ballot measure, many at yesterday’s conference said that a tax extension would be no more than a temporary solution.
“Many of us in the OEA will reluctantly support extending current regressive taxes,” said Olson-Jones. “But we know that in the long run, the only solution is for there to be progressive taxation that takes the corporations and the banks and makes them pay their fair share.”
Lewis Cohen, the education policy analyst for Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, believes that business leaders should take more responsibility to combat the state’s current budget crisis. “Last year was the second-best year for corporate profits ever recorded in U.S. history,” he said. “At the same time when the state was supposedly closing its budget gap, they gave billions of new corporate tax breaks.”
While the spending on K-12 education has been taking up the biggest portion of the state’s budget in recent years, California schools are still among the most under-funded in the country. “We educate one in eight public school students in the state of California, and yet we fund at the 47th [level] of all states in the U.S.,” said OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith, who moderated the press conference after yesterday’s protest.
In a study done by The California Budget Project, an independent research organization based in Sacramento, California spends roughly $9,000 on each K-12 pupil while the average amount throughout the country is about $11,400.
The figures also suggest that the number of K-12 students per teacher in California—about 20—is the largest in the entire country. In addition, California’s high school graduation rate— roughly 62 percent—ranks 42nd in the U.S.
“Many people may believe that the debate in Sacramento is over a $26 billion budget deficit,” said Assemblymember Sandré Swanson at the press conference. Swanson represents the state’s16th District, which includes Oakland. “But it really is, and should be, a debate over California values. The children should win in that debate,” he said.
Image: Oakland Education Association president Betty Olson-Jones asked teachers and students to make their voices heard in Sacramento.
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