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Education Occupied

news1-1Protestors and allies discuss the future of public education

The California legislature adopted the Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960 with the primary purpose of ensuring the accessibility, affordability, and accountability of higher education for all eligible California residents with a high school diploma.

Marilyn Walker, member of the UC Santa Cruz Academic Senate and professor of computer science, says she is seriously concerned that the master plan for education is in danger of “going down the tubes.”

In the last two years, the state has incrementally decreased the budget for public education systems, from K-12 through higher education, in response to a statewide budget crisis. With revenues more than $2.2 billion below projections in December 2011, California Gov. Jerry Brown said the state has to cut another $1 billion in spending this year. The California State University and University of California systems each lost $750 million in state funding in the 2011-12 academic year and further cuts are pending.

“Education is part of the American Dream,” says Walker. “I went to university at a time where it was possible to get good student loans. I got plenty of student loans when I graduated but I got a good job when I got out and I paid them off within two years. Now students [are] taking on more financial burden and the jobs aren’t there.”

As part of a National Day of Action for Public Education, students, workers, faculty, and community members from Occupy Santa Cruz and elsewhere gathered in the rain under tents and umbrellas at the base of UCSC. The campus was effectively shutdown by the student-led strike action. Beginning at 4:30 a.m. on March 1, the eclectic group from across the Santa Cruz community attended a “Tent University” constructed by student activists to discuss what many see as the endangered future of California’s public education system.

The rain-drenched protesters raised big-picture concerns about society and the potential privatization of education.

“If we want things like jobs, schools, decent ways of life, [and a] halfway livable environment that isn't completely destroyed, we’ve got to think about a fundamentally different society and what it takes to construct it,” says David Lau, a College 9 lecturer who has worked at UCSC since 2005. “When you see those kids at Tent University, that’s what they're doing. Do we want to live in a society where people have access to education—where they have the possibility of determining their own course in life intellectually, in terms of their career, rather than being subject to the dynamics that excluded poor?”

California colleges and universities haven’t seen much amnesty as of late: the University of California, California State University, and the state's community college system will each lose an additional $100-200 million in what is called "trigger budget cuts" throughout 2012. The proposed budget means an increase in already significant cuts to the public educational budget.

news1-2UC Santa Cruz students gather with faculty members, campus workers and community allies for a March 1 National Day of Action for Public Education. The event was one of many recent protests about the state of public education.Many Democratic lawmakers support a ballot initiative proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would fund education and public safety programs by temporarily raising income taxes on people who make more than $250,000 a year and temporarily increasing the sales tax by half a cent.

The UC Student Association has endorsed a rival initiative proposed for the November ballot that would tax millionaires and earmark the revenue for education. The California Federation of Teachers and the California PTA also support that initiative.

The UCSC protest was part of a broader Week of Action for Public Education, which lasted from March 1 to 5, culminating in a day-long Occupy Education rally at the Capitol Building in Sacramento on March 5. Other actions across the state included a "99-mile March" from Berkeley to Sacramento, and rallies at all UC and Cal State campuses.

 About 20 UCSC staff workers gathered under a tent at the March 1 UCSC event in solidarity with the students.

“We’re supporting the students because we don’t think it’s right that the fees are going up, and we’ll always support the students because we think this is unjust,” Enriqueta Florez, a UCSC staff worker, says in Spanish through a translator.

Maria Padia, also a UCSC staff worker, stands beside Florez and adds in Spanish, “We support the students fully because they’re our real bosses. We don’t care if we have our supervisors or the bosses or the regents, they’re not our bosses because the students are here. They’re here for us and we totally support them.”

The week of rallies, marches, protests, and discussion directly opposed the proposed budget cuts and increasing privatization of public education and were primarily student-organized, with a wide variety of vocal supporters ranging from the various California Occupy groups, The American Federation of Teachers, various labor councils statewide, and some University of California employees.

“The tents at the Tent University are partly for shelter, and partly symbolic of the connection of the UC budget crisis to the socioeconomic inequality highlighted by the Occupy movement,” says Noah Miska, a third year environmental studies and art major at UCSC, and organizer of the March 1 activity. “The budget crisis is a result of the fact that this university is managed by and for the 1 percent. What would a university run by and for the 99 percent look like? The Tent University is an opportunity to begin to finding answers to that question.”

However, not all were in full support of the week’s direct actions. Jim Burns, spokesperson for UCSC, said in an email to GT prior to March 1 that while the chancellor and campus provost acknowledge and seek to mitigate the impact of reduced state support for public education, the administration was concerned that the protest would further impact students' access to “classes they are now paying more for.”

“We believe it is more important for supporters to express their concerns to state lawmakers, whose actions to reduce UC's state-funded budget have led to tuition increases and program cuts,” Burns says via email.

While the administration is not convinced of the efficiency of a protest at the campus, many argue that student activism is one of many key components necessary to the future of public education.

Charlotte Pizzella, UCSC literature and Russian language major, also argues that protests—like the one in which she currently stands, holding an umbrella—are a valuable tool to give an otherwise inaudible voice to the students, faculty, staff and supporters of public education.

“I’m out here because I really think public education is a common good and not something to be sold with an exchange value,” she says.

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