Student Protests and the Threat to Public Education

They’ve started sending the pink slips to teachers and other employees in San Francisco. In all, almost 900 of them will get layoff notices over the next couple of weeks because the city can’t come up with the $113 million needed to cover the expense of educating its children and young people. The education workers are being told that at least some of their jobs could be saved if some proposed “reforms” can be enacted. These include increasing class sizes, early retirement and cuts in pay and benefits for those employed in the school district.

I know some of these teachers – especially some of the younger ones who are slated to be the first to go. They are the kind of bright, eager, resourceful and dedicated ones that we read so much about these days as being needed to improve education. Some of them are at that age where they start hooking up and raising the next generation. That after working to acquire their credentials they suddenly find themselves on the streets sucks. But the real victims here are the kids.

The good news is that the students are fighting back, as are their parents. Even the usually staid PTAs are protesting and mobilizing. This week thousands of them have taken to the streets.

Let’s pause here and ask a question. What does it mean that in the richest country in the world, in the biggest state in the union, in this sophisticated and liberal city – a Pacific Rim financial center – we can’t find enough money to properly educate the young?

Don’t get the idea I’m writing about a local phenomenon or a just about grades K through 12.

It’s happening all over the country. At a February 20 meeting of the National Governors Association Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “I am very, very concerned about layoffs going into the next school year starting in September. Good superintendents are going to start sending out pink slips in March and April, like a month from now, as they start to plan for their budgets.”

Meanwhile, because of ongoing student protests – certainly not due to political leadership or a diligent media – most of us are aware of the threat to education at the university level. Let’s face it, at a time where higher education is being touted as the answer to everything from unemployment to the nation’s economic competiveness in the world marketplace, the chances of young people getting within striking distance of an advanced degree are being reduced. Here is California what has been the state’s crown jewel, the University of California system is being hammered by facility cutbacks and increased tuition costs.

Hardly a statement out of the Obama Administration about education these days fails to mention the importance of community colleges. Meanwhile, state officials say that community colleges in California will enroll 21,000 fewer students this year as a result of the financial squeeze. In some schools student are finding it impossible to get into the classes they need to graduate or, in some cases, to qualify for student loans or aid.

Thousands of students are finding it impossible to even get into community colleges. The enrollment decline “is a result of a lack of resources,” state Chancellor Jack Scott recently told reporters.” We’re on the road to a disastrous decline in college enrollment in California.”

“Really, all of us ought to be concerned,” Scott added. “We really need to find a way to educate more students, not fewer.”

“Some of my classes, people have to sit on the floor,” a student Alex Pristinsky, recently told the Contra Costa Times. “Every class has to have a waiting list and even the waiting lists are full,” said another student Kelsey Wise, a first-year psychology major who couldn’t get into an introductory psychology course because there was no room.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the weight of this crisis falls disproportionately upon African Americans, Latino and other students of color and their communities. Lectures about getting an education start to ring hollow when it becomes increasingly difficult to do so for those who try.

By now we’ve heard all the explanations – or excuses – for the education crisis. It’s the recession, state tax revenues are doing and the states are required to balance their budgets. Here is California much of the onus is but on the legacy of the dreaded Proposition 13. That’s the ballot measure passed by voters almost exactly 10 years ago, sponsored by rightwing tax activist that severely limited the ability to finance expenditures from property taxes. It’s all true but it avoids the fundamental question: why can a nation and a government that can raise $1 million each to send young men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan not find the recourses to adequately educate young people here at home.

We hear a lot of talk these days about educational reform. A lot of attention is given to the virtues – or lack thereof – of No Child Left Behind or the relatively miniscule number of charter schools. Secretary Duncan himself is full of news about “grants” for this and “grants” for that for educational innovation. It seems to me the real danger here is the evolution of a two-tiered educational system with some students perhaps getting a better education (the jury is still out on the charters) while a larger number get fewer opportunities. In any case, talk about school reform seems a bit unseemly when students are trying to learn sitting on the floor.

The White House proposal to grant $900 million to states and education districts that, in the words of the Associated Press, “agree to drastically change or even shutter their worst performing schools” doesn’t address the problem that prompted this week’s protests.

There is something peculiar about the people who hold most of the wealth and pretty much run this country. They don’t seem to be able to act in their own self interest, in ways that keep the “free market” economic system going. This educational crisis is not being duplicated in Brazil or China. In those countries they are doing their utmost to prepare for the future.

So this week, students, teachers, administrators and campus worker unions are in the streets demanding action. It shouldn’t be necessary but it’s commendable and encouraging and it should be received as a serious wakeup call.

Carl Bloice

Republished with permission from the Black Commentator.


  1. Jeanne Lavieri says

    When educational reform means increasing class size, I think we need to reform our definition of “reform.”

  2. Fritz Dahmus says

    There are three things necessary for quality education.
    1. Skilled and willing teacher
    2. Effective Classroom Management
    3. Willing and well-prepared student

    Notice that I never mentioned the phrase “under-funded”. As teachers, we should be skilled and willing (we have the training and the paychecks as evidence). Effective classroom management is really where it all begins and ends; if a teacher gets this accomplished, there will be learning. The “willing and well prepared student” unfortuneately is a code phrase for “middle-class family with educated parents”. That is where the “under-funded” phrase has real meaning. I will let everyone decide for themselves why this is. But, whatever you decide, we surely all believe a “well-funded” classroom can not replace a “well-funded” home.

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