Mass protests last week against school funding cuts and tuition hikes spoke powerfully about California’s misplaced priorities. As occurred with campus protests last fall, the media gave overwhelmingly sympathetic coverage (other than to the self-indulgent group who blocked an Oakland freeway, diverting television coverage away from legitimate protests). But activists’ strategy for achieving their goals is far from clear. There is no measure on the November 2010 ballot that raises significant new money for education.
Activists can use mass action to pressure legislators and the Governor to redirect excessive spending on prisons and other wasteful programs to education, but there is no chance this year of getting enough Republicans to win the necessary two-thirds legislative votes. It appears activists need a three-part strategy; pass a November ballot measure ending the two-thirds vote requirement, continue building a movement to force a new Governor and Legislature to hike the vehicular license fee in 2011, and at the same time prepare a game-changing ballot measure for 2012 that ensures adequate education funding once and for all.
The students, teachers, school employees, labor unions and parents who organized the tremendously successful March 4 statewide education protests achieved what they set out to do: bring the education crisis to newspaper front pages, and the lead stories on television, radio and online news. I cannot recall ever previously seeing such a broad one-day event around education in California, as event organizers brought together an extraordinarily diverse coalition.
Now this budding movement must go from highlighting the problem to solving it. And with California’s economy still in the dumps and the two-thirds vote requirement still in effect, this will not be easy.
Limited Short-Term Options
According to Willie Pelote Sr., assistant director of AFCSME, “polls routinely show that a majority of California voters support public services and want to see programs like education, environmental protections, child care, health care, job training, mental health services, etc. adequately funded. The existence of these programs speaks to our desire as citizens to promote fairness and equality in our state by codifying these values in public policy.” Pelote’s union, along with the California Federation of Teachers and a coalition of labor and community groups, are sponsoring a 260-mile “March for California’s Future” to highlight California’s education and public service crisis; the march, which seeks to consciously evoke Cesar Chavez’s 1966 “pilgrimage” from Delano to Sacramento, began on March 5.
But the only polls that count are held on Election Day. So if a majority of Californians really wants adequate school funding, then activists must have a strategy for sustaining the participation of those who hit the streets last week. And this participation must be demonstrated in two critical ways.
First, there must be constant protests as the Legislature debates the budget to demand that excessive prison funding be redirected to schools. If the public wants California to have quality education, then it must tell legislators to shorten prison sentences for non-violent offenders so that billions of dollars can be saved.
Frankly, I’m not real hopeful about this strategy. Not only would it require some Republican support, but many Democrats fear being tagged as “soft on crime” for the November elections.
But whether the Legislature redirects new money to education or not, the emerging education movement must ensure that the two-thirds budget approval rule is revoked in November. That at least creates an opportunity for a major influx of school money as soon as 2011 through a hike in the vehicular license fee.
This opportunity, however, assumes Democratic Governor candidate Jerry Brown supports such an increase. School activists should get him on record on this during the campaign, because raising this fee is the easiest way to get significant new revenue to schools in 2011.
Of course, past experience shows that even when the Legislature does pass revenue-raising measures, they immediately become subject to referendum – or in the case of Governor Davis and the vehicular license fee, a recall. So education activists will have to prove public support for schools at the ballot box, whether through a progressive initiative or opposing a Republican repeal measure.
Building Infrastructure for 2012
If education were my priority issue, I would be working to build infrastructure for a statewide ballot measure in November 2012 that once and for all guarantees adequate funding for our education system. Whether this measure raise income taxes on the wealthy, or taxes oil companies, or offers an entirely new budget idea is up to the pollster and consultants who test these ideas – activists need to focus on getting the resources necessary to qualify the ballot measure, and then to win against powerful and well funded interests.
Every California foundation involved with education should make funding this infrastructure a top priority.
If you combine students, labor unions, school employees, faculty, the parents of current and future students, the PTA’s, local School Boards, and community groups funded by foundations to focus on education, then the ongoing outrage of California’s defunding of public education can be reversed.
It’s well past time for relying on politicians to do the right thing. Education activists need to seize the moment and, while not foregoing activism around the 2011 budget, start preparing now for an historic campaign and victory in 2012.
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