Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Students oppose education cuts

By Frank D. Russo

They came by the busloads to Sacramento from all across the length and breadth of the state of California and marched to the state Capitol for a rally. Not only were there numbers large—perhaps as large as 2000 in Sacramento in addition to those taking part in rallies in other locations—but they were loud and energized. Folks working inside their offices three blocks away could hear students chanting as could those inside the Capitol.

The Governor was out of town, but the message was clear. After the rally and throughout the day, students roamed the hallways of the legislature talking to their representatives. They represented 3.2 million students—who have registered to vote in record numbers—and will be looking closely to see what is done after the May Revise of the budget is available in about three weeks. There will be a huge backlash if the cuts go through.

In addressing the crowd, Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, who by virtue of his office sits on the University of California Board of Regents and is a Trustee of the California State University system, said: “You are all here because you have a message for the legislature and for the Governor. And the message is simple: Kick us out and we’ll vote you out.” This brought out repeated chants from the students who had repeated “Kick us out and we’ll vote you out,” earlier as they marched from Raley Field up to the Capitol. Garamendi also asked the students to make a pledge that “This is the first day and not the last day.”

The message was not lost on those who gave up a day to come to Sacramento. Frank Fernandez, President of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, said that this coalition will continue their lobbying efforts and actions statewide until the Governor releases his revised budget in May and until the budget is passed. “We hope the May Revise budget reflects a reinvestment in higher education,” he noted.

The theme of higher education as an investment in California’s future was another point being driven home by students and others who spoke. Return on Investment: Educational Choices and Demographic Change in California,” a study by UC Berkeley professors, Henry Brady, Michael Hout, and John Stiles, shows that for every dollar California spends graduating students from college, there is a return on that investment of three dollars. That translates to $3 billion in additional tax revenues for each group of students over their lives. In addition, there are increased costs associated with incarceration and other losses to the state if a student’s education stops with high school and does not continue to completion of college.

Governor Schwarzenegger proposed cutting the Community College system by $418 million, the UC system by $332 million, and the CSU system by $313 million, totaling over $1 billion in proposed cuts for higher education in California. Students are concerned that these cuts could be translated into fee hikes for current students or cause the campuses to run out of space for all the students covered under California’s Master Plan.

Students see this not only as a problem with higher education, but also look at this in the context of $5 billion in proposed cuts to all levels of education. Dina Cervantes, California State Student Association Board Chair, said yesterday was “the day no student should be silent in the face of $5.3 billion in cuts to education. The proposed budget should increase investment in education from preschool to Ph.D., not the opposite.”

Cervantes continued, and stress that students across the state are already facing an affordability crisis.” These fee hikes force students to drop out of school or take on a 20 hour plus work week in addition to their classes,” she stated. “Even if we work and go to school, many of us still end up thousands of dollars in debt after we graduate.”

Louise Hendrickson, Board President of the University of California Student Association, said: “Our generation has yet to see another issue with the power to singlehandedly affect multitudes of Californians the way these budget cuts could. Now is the time to put aside differences, come together, and ensure a better, brighter future for all.”

Hendrickson noted that Students in both the CSU and UC systems have seen their fees almost double since 2001. “Fee hikes are back-door tax hikes on students and their families. I’s not acceptable for legislators to take revenue raising off the table for everyone else and continue to balance the state budget on the backs of students,” she said. Hendrickson has experienced the increased costs of education herself, owing over $120,000 in debt from school loans. Others spoke of working and struggling to stay in school—some with two jobs to make ends meet.

The students were joined in by legislators including , Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Senate President Pro Tem elect Darrell Steinberg (pictured at left), and the Chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee Anthony Portantino, all of whom spoke out against the $1.1 billion in proposed cuts much to the delight and deafening roar from the crowd.

Garamendi framed the fee increases that will be necessary if the UC budget is cut further as a tax cut. He said: “There is no more important investment than the investment in students. We must stop taxing our young people, and we must once again invest in the intellectual infrastructure of our state.”

To boos from the crowd, he brought up the names of former Republican governors of California Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson. After the boos quieted down, he then told the students that those two conservatives saw the value of investing in kids and raised taxes to fund education.

The budget cuts are also a threat to many graduating seniors. If the Governor’s proposed cuts are put in place, the community colleges and UC campuses will not be funded with enough money to increase the number of students eligible to enroll on their campuses in the fall. Next year’s high school seniors graduating class will be the largest ever seen in the Golden State. The California Master Plan should allow for the top 12% of high school students to attend a UC school, 50% to attend a CSU campus and all high school graduates to attend a Community College in California.

“The Community College System is supposed to be the most accessible to young people,” said Frank Fernandez. “Telling students that we don’t have enough money to give them an available chair in a classroom, is not an option,” he said. “It would break the promise of the California’s Master Plan for education.” The Master Plan, approved by the Legislature, guides all policies of higher education in the state.

The UC Regents recently agreed to absorb additional costs for increased enrollment this year, but if funding is not provided from the state it will cause the UC System to take on further internal cuts.

Expect to hear more about education—a red hot issue—in what is supposed to be the “year of education” in California.

Posted on April 22, 2008

From California Progress Report.
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