Education demonstration

Students, professors and university employees protest budget cuts at the Capitol

At the Capitol last week, students of all ages gathered to protest massive cuts in the state’s education budget.

At the Capitol last week, students of all ages gathered to protest massive cuts in the state’s education budget.

Photo By Wes Davis

Students, faculty and staff from many of California’s higher-education institutions demonstrated March 4 at the state Capitol as part of larger statewide demonstrations challenging continuing education budget cuts. The protest drew 2,000 people, twice as many as expected, according to organizers.

For student demonstrators, fee hikes and class cuts were only part of a larger heap of woes. The rising cost of college often means students being forced to work two or three jobs, simply to cover living and escalating school costs.

Alma Lopez, 23, a biology major at Sacramento State, was among those who traveled in a group from the Sac State campus to the demonstration. This semester Lopez is working two jobs while attending CSUS, an improvement from the three she worked last semester.

“I have to repeat some courses next semester because I was working too much to do well, and I couldn’t get into those courses this semester,” Lopez said.

Lopez’s story is similar to many other CSU students who have suffered a fee hike of 182 percent since 2000. James Damiani, 22, sociology and communications major at CSUS, said that since fees increased, his existing budget can no longer cover his expenses.

“I was able to cover almost everything, but now I have to take out loans. Last semester I didn’t even attend because I was afraid of borrowing money,” Damiani said.

Professors and instructors are familiar with the struggles of their overworked students. CSUS history professor Afshin Marashi, 41, said he is showing his support because he has had enough of the systematic dismantling of higher education.

“I feel like we have to do something. Students are paying more, working full time and still trying to go to school. They have no time to study,” Marashi said.

Marashi, a publicly educated man, is leaving CSUS for the University of Kansas because of the financial pressures placed on faculty in California—essentially, more work for less money.

“The core of the problem is that the banks and real-estate speculators created this huge bubble and destroyed the economy of the state. The people who are suffering are the students, the elderly and the most vulnerable of our society,” Marashi said.

UC Berkeley professor Louise Fortmann, 63, said she came to demonstrate on behalf of those who could not make it to Sacramento.

“I’m afraid to ask students if they will be coming back the next semester, because I don’t want to cry,” Fortmann said. “It’s important for legislators to see how angry we are.”

The immediate effects of rising fees concern students, but many voiced their fear of long-term problems caused by the budget cuts, like a widening socioeconomic gap and increasing exclusion of minorities and students of color from higher education.

These kids aren’t clowning around. But will legislators listen to them?

Photo By Wes Davis

“I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve got a family that supports me and I get financial aid, but I’m here in solidarity with those who have been pushed out, especially those of color,” said Brandon Sisk, 25, who started preparing for the demonstration at 5 a.m.

One of the speakers at the demonstration and president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, Reid Milburn, said that unless these issues surrounding education are addressed, California’s future is bleak.

“If we don’t invest in education, we are looking at a dead future for the state,” Milburn said. “There is really going to be a class system of folks who don’t have access to education or the resources to get it. The threats about the middle class disappearing are very real.”

Another common concern among demonstrators was access to higher education for future generations.

Tiffany Broadway, 24, student at Cosumnes River College, plans to transfer to CSUS in the future and is protesting to keep that a viable option, but also has her son’s future in mind.

“This sort of demonstration is getting the attention we need, but it’s for the youth also. I want to be able to afford school for him,” Broadway said, looking at the sleeping 2-year-old in her arms.

As for possible solutions, most have rallied behind Assembly Bill 656, Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico’s bill, which would tax any oil extracted from California.

“Since we have limited funding, we need alternative funding. California is the only state that allows oil to be extracted without an oil tax, and no one would call Alaska or Texas more progressive than California,” Sisk said.

Torrico, who attended the demonstration, said that his bill is driven by the possibility that if California cannot fund its higher-education system and retain the best professors and students, other states will take them.

“The students are the key here. The students coming to Sacramento and talking about the devastating impact it has on them and their families and the tough decisions they are forced to make. The personal stories humanize the budget,” Torrico said.

The California Faculty Association also made it clear they intend to hold Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to his budget proposal to restore $305 million of lost funding to the CSU system.

Student organizers were pleased with the turnout from all levels of education, but said this was just the beginning.

“It’s been said a lot that this is the new student movement, but this is the new education movement,” said one of the CSUS student organizers, Robert Graham, 23.

Another student demonstration is planned at the Capitol on March 22.

While the outcome of the demonstrations remains to be seen, what is clear is that the cuts to higher education have unified almost every group. The anxiety is palpable and widespread among students, faculty and administrators.