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Oakland high school students working to put an initiative for free college educations on the state ballot

on February 2, 2012

On January 19, Suneal Kolluri received an envelope in the mail from the California Attorney General’s office. Inside the envelope was the official title and summary for the College for California ballot initiative, a proposal to give every Californian a free college education, that was drafted by the high school students he teaches at Life Academy in East Oakland. At that moment the clock started ticking: Kolluri has 150 days to get 807,615 signatures.

Kolluri teaches government, history and economics at the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, a small public high school that focuses on preparing students for careers as health professionals. Last year he was approached by Rich Boettner, another teacher at the school, about giving Kolluri’s senior American Government students a project. Boettner was frustrated by how much money and political clout it takes to get initiatives on the ballot in California, and thought this would be a good topic for students to tackle. Kolluri was intrigued, and opened up the floor for discussion among his students about what they would most like to see on the ballot. The conversation immediately turned to the cost of college tuition.

“The seniors were stressed out about how much they were going to have to pay just to get an education that should be available to everyone,” Kolluri said. “The UC system was raising tuition again and there were marches at UC Berkeley. For the kids it was really at the forefront of their minds at the time.”

The students spent weeks researching the California initiative process, state and federal tax systems, and the public university systems before determining what they wanted to put in their initiative. They collaborated with another group of students at Oakland Unity High School, an independent charter school near Mills College, to come up with the final proposal.

The result was their College for California initiative, which would eliminate tuition and fees for all California residents who are full time students at any UC or CSU school by raising the state income tax. The initiative calls for a tax boost from 9.3 to 10 percent for individuals making over $250,000 per year and to 11 percent for those making more than $500,000. Students would be eligible for tuition-free education for four years if during each academic year they maintain a GPA of at least 2.7 or perform 70 hours of community service.

Now all the students need in order to qualify the initiative for the November 2012 ballot are signatures.

Kolluri has set up a College for California headquarters at Life Academy, where students meet after school to reach out to the media, create Facebook and Twitter pages for the initiative, and strategize about spreading the word. Since receiving approval from the state of California on January 19, students working on the campaign have collected around 1,000 signatures.

At the high school it’s a new group of faces, since the students who drafted the proposal have since gone off to begin their freshman year at colleges and universities around the state. Daniela Martinez, a current senior, has been involved since the beginning of the semester when she first heard about it. “We’re very excited,” she said. “We’re trying to make an education available for everybody. For a lot of kids at our school, paying ridiculous amounts of tuition just to get educated—that’s crazy.”

Oakland Unity High School students pass out information about the College for California initiative.

Martinez is worried about the cost of her own college education. She has applied to Pitzer College in Southern California in the hopes of one day entering the medical field and making a difference in her community.  “I want to help people that come from similar backgrounds as I did,” she said. “You know, low income.”

Jessica Ortega, a senior at Unity High School helping with the signature-gathering campaign, got involved because it’s a cause that hits very close to home. “It’s the loans – that’s what I’m scared of,” she said. “How can I ask my parents for help when they have their own bills to pay?”

Ortega joined eighteen other Unity students on the campus of UC Berkeley on Monday as they gathered signatures from Cal students. Unity teacher Kara Duros helped organize the field trip, which took place during an intercession day – a day of no classes between semesters – and gave students first-hand experience honing their powers of persuasion.

“It’s a big number, and it seems overwhelming,” Duros said. “But we hope that the passion that people have for education will help us get this on the ballot.”

About two weeks in to the signature-gathering process, students and teachers alike appear hopeful. But they are aware of the challenges ahead. No proposition funded solely by volunteers has been passed in California in the past 10 years.

“It’s frustrating to realize what we’re up against,” Kolluri said. “We hear news that Jerry Brown has already raised $1 million [in backing for his tax plan] and we have a total of whatever is in my wallet right now. But there is a lot of excitement, and we do believe that this is feasible.”

In addition to going door-to-door to gather signatures, the students are planning to harness the power of social media to get some real traction behind their campaign. Alumni of Life Academy and Unity High School are organizing campaigns at the campuses of their new alma maters, and anyone can download a petition sheet to start their own signature campaign in their city or school. All that information can be found at the College for California website.

“It’s political action and civic engagement in a really authentic way,” Kolluri said. “These kids are getting to do something that high school students almost never get to do—fight for something they care about in a way that is tangible.”


Correction: This article was originally published with the headline Life Academy students put an initiative for free college educations on the state ballot.


1 Comment

  1. AGO on February 3, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Fantastic! Excellent idea – academic thought applied to real life situations. Please be sure to publish updates on this story (including when and where to go to sign the petition!). Thanks for the story!

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