Protests against tuition hikes and program in public education and service cuts have become more frequent and more intense as state budgets have tightened. It’s awful everywhere–and worse in California (e.g. ), where an old tradition of the state supporting access to a low (or no) tuition/high quality education for its top students has been eroding for some time.
On Monday, in coordination with a national day of action on education, several groups staged protests in Sacramento about current–and proposed–cuts to spending on education. Thousands of protesters, including the formal groups representing California students at the community colleges, state colleges, and state universities, as well as labor groups and numerous Occupy groups, participated, bringing shared concerns and sharp differences on long term goals and tactics. At least 70 students were arrested for refusing to leave the Capitol.
Governor Brown, who has already cut spending for every level of public education in California, sees more cuts on the horizon, as state revenues have fallen below projections. He expressed sympathy for the students, and tried to turn the protests to his own purposes. He released a statement pointing those concerned with education to his proposal for new temporary taxes to balance the state budget:
The students today are reflecting the frustrations of millions of Californians who have seen their public schools and universities eroded year after year. That’s why it’s imperative that we get more tax revenue this November.
Some of the student groups support new taxes, but have rallied behind an alternative proposal which earmarks the new revenue for education. Others are trying to avoid specific proposals, and just trying to urge the Legislature–as forcefully as possible–to fund education adequately. Some of the students lobbied legislators, and were pleased to have elected officials speak to them and offer support.
Others, including Refund California and Occupy Education California, were wary about the legislators’ support and politics as usual. To be sure, polls suggest that approving a new tax, even a temporary one, through a referendum will be an uphill battle.
Occupy brings new energies and new activists into the campaign for education funding, but it does more than that. By framing the education campaign as part of a larger struggle against inequality, the Occupy protesters make for a more ambitious movement, one that won’t be willing to fund education at the expense of, for example, the already stingy Medical program. (Governor Brown has been lobbying, unsuccessfully, for the Federal government to allow him to cut Medicaid spending even more sharply.)
Old school interest group politics is based on focusing narrowly on your organization and constituency, letting government sort out competing pressures. Occupy pushes for a larger political vision, one which seeks to stop their government from playing one vulnerable constituency against another.
It’s a better analysis. It remains to be seen if it’s a more effective strategy.