Monday, September 28, 2009

Thousands in Berkeley Mobilize to Save Public Education in California

On Thursday, September 24th, an estimated five thousand people attended a rally on Sproul Plaza at the University of California, Berkeley. The rally and subsequent march through campus and downtown Berkeley—scheduled to coincide with and planned in support of the University of California (UC) Faculty Walkout that took place on all ten UC campuses—brought together undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, university workers and alumni to protest the budget cuts at Berkeley and stand up for public education across California.

All in attendance protested the enrollment cuts, layoffs, faculty furloughs and threatened department cuts outlined in a plan pushed through by the UC administration this summer in the aftermath of a reduction in state educational funding to the tune of more than $637 million—or 20% of the 2009-2010 budget. But it is perhaps the already imposed 9.3% increase in student fees for the 2009-2010 school year, as well as the proposed 32% fee increase to be partially imposed mid-year that has invigorated the masses. Many feel these increased fees will effectively privatize California’s public schools, making higher education inaccessible to countless California residents—including those already enrolled in the system. One Berkeley first-year, Magali Flores, currently pays her own fees but expressed worries of having to ask her mother for help if the 32% increase proposal passes, help she is not sure her single mother of five will be able to provide.

Ricardo Gomez, a third-year at Berkeley, says the fee increases will not affect him personally because he receives scholarship; however, “I know for a fact that students will be priced out—particularly undocumented students.” Another student held a sign that said, “’UC’ me now…you won’t see me after 32%”.

After the proposed increase, fees will amount to over $10,000, before room and board. With such high costs, “the line between public and private blurs,” says Alex Tarr, a graduate student in geography at Berkeley and head steward of the Local 2865 UAW which represents 12,000 student employees, grad-student instructors, readers and tutors.

But it is not just students who have something to say about the fee hikes. Paul (who declined to give his last name), a Spectroscopist and member of the University Professional Technical Employee union (UPTE), expressed concern that the University was no longer following its mission, laid out in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education—specifically, the principle that higher education should be accessible to all regardless of one’s economic means. “The whole mission of the University of California was so anyone could come here, to a public university that was as good as Harvard or Yale. The irony is that it is cheaper now to go to either one of those schools than to one of the UC’s”—referring to the ability of many Ivy League schools to run needs-blind admission and finance the education of any admitted student who is unable to pay. Personally, he said, he has two children he hoped to send to the University of California system, but with rising costs he is exploring options in other states.

Tamar (who declined to give her last name), a Berkeley alum and an UPTE member (a union which chose to strike on the 24th in solidarity with the Faculty Walkout after itself engaging in 19 months of negotiations with the University with no contract), wanted to bring greater awareness to the day-to-day changes brought on by these budget cuts. “Professors are being forced to furlough classes, to work harder in less time with less salary. Facilities and departments have fewer open hours or may close entirely. Essentially, students will be paying 32% in increased fees for reduced services.”

Tamar—and many others—argue that such drastic budget cuts are unnecessary. Many expressed a belief that the money is there, despite the reduction in state funding, but it is being allocated disproportionately to executive salaries for the Regents, the Cal football coach and especially President Mark Yudof, towards whom a great deal of the protesters’ ire was directed. (An objective observer may become sympathetic to such ire after reading Yudof’s snarky responses to Deborah Solomon’s questions in the September 24thNew York Times interview.) Those who place most of the blame for the budget crisis on the University leadership demand budget transparency and democratization of the Board of Regents.

Others believe the blame for the current budget crisis should lie primarily on the state, whose priorities they question. They cite statistics that show that over the past 20 years, state expenditures on education have gone down from 17% to 7% while state expenditures on the prison system have gone up from 3% to 10%. As Ruben Canedo, a representative of the SOLIDARITY alliance and one of the organizers of the march, put it, “The message that the state is sending to kids is that it is more prepared to send you to the prison system than the education system.”

And still others believe the fact is there is simply not enough tax revenue to sustain public education in California. Those carrying signs that said, “Repeal Prop. 13” said the current state budget crisis was foreseen long ago. “Once Prop. 13 froze property taxes at 1970’s rates, a future budget crisis was inevitable,” said California State University, Monterey Bay campus Professor C. Menning. Originally intended to protect elderly residents from being taxed out of their homes, “it was the corporations who benefited most” from Proposition 13, Menning said. In 2004, in an attempt to preempt the public education crisis, Governor Schwarzenegger, then UC President Robert C. Dynes and CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed created The Higher Education Compact that put forth a plan to mitigate the budget gaps by raising student fees and increasing private fundraising. This is the crux of the argument that California public higher education is being privatized. Or perhaps even the smoking gun.

Still, the September 24th rally at Berkeley, along with the walkouts across California, illustrate the fact that thousands want to preserve public education. And the 24th was just the beginning. Berkeley has held a general assembly and established committees to continue organizing in this fight. Conferences are being held to connect the UCs, CSUs, Community Colleges and K-12s within regions and eventually across the state. This is exciting: a new movement with inspiring leaders waiting in the wings. Thousands of leaders, in fact, ready to mobilize to protect the promise of an accessible education for all. “This is not a movement for a specific community or population,” said Canedo. “We stand in solidarity for education. We ask for your support.”

An estimated five thousand people gathered to rally on Sproul Plaza at the University of California, Berkeley.

Among the protesters was a contingent representing student-parents. They held a banner that asked, "Where's the affordability you promised us?"

Representatives from the Student Worker Action Team (SWAT) and the SOLIDARITY Alliance, among others, lead the march through the Berkeley campus and downtown Berkeley.

Marchers returned to campus via Bancroft road.

The marchers staged a sit-in at the intersection of Telegraph and Bancroft across from the Sproul Plaza entrance of the Berkeley campus.

Both UPTE (University Professional Technical Employees) and CUE (Coalition of University Employees) chose to strike in solidarity with the UC Faculty Walkouts on September 24th. Union members and supporters picketed at the Berkeley campus entrances throughout the day.

As night fell, a General Assembly was held for anyone who wanted to help organize to continue the fight to save public education.

Despite three relocations of the General Assembly due to a lack of open University facilities, hundreds moved together and finally settled in Lower Sproul Plaza on a chilly night to continue organizing.
blog comments powered by Disqus