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Wave of Protests Against Cuts to Education Sweep U.S.

By Kosta Harlan

As effects of the economic crisis ripple across the U.S., budget shortfalls have sparked crises in nearly every educational system. Public school systems are seeing layoffs of teachers which will mean bigger class sizes, declining quality in education and more stresses on already strained public school systems. Universities have seen their endowments shrink substantially, prompting a crisis of how to continue with slashed operating budgets.

But those who would be most affected by the cuts – teachers, students and staff – are fighting back against cuts to education. Since the middle of January, hundreds of emergency protests have taken place in opposition to cuts to education. The protests have taken a variety of different forms, including rallies, sit-in protests, mock funerals for higher education, mass marches and even student strikes. What unites all the demonstrations is the demand to stop any cuts to education access and services.

Organizing to stop the cuts

Hundreds of students from City University of New York (CUNY) walked out of class on March 5 to protest Governor Paterson’s proposal to cut funding to education. Jackelyn Mariano, a protester from Hunter College said, “CUNY is made up of working-class students and students of color who really can’t afford to go anywhere else. It was supposed to be free when it opened up, and tuition has been increasing ever since” (Washington Square News, 3/6/09). Hundreds of students from New York University also participated in the rally.

In Arizona, responding to over $300 million in cuts to higher education for 2009, over 2000 students from universities across the state marched on Phoenix in early February. On March 18, over 1000 students gathered in Jacksonville, Florida, to protest hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the state’s education system. And in Sacramento, California, thousands of teachers and students from across the state descended on the capital last week to protest massive layoffs and cuts to education.

At Middle Tennessee State University, the university’s steering committee proposed eliminating 44 majors, dissolving some departments, closing the women’s center and day care center, laying off 70 faculty and outsourcing custodial services. The Coalition to Save Our Schools at Middle Tennessee State University has been leading a huge effort with repeated demonstrations of hundreds of students to stop the cuts, including a ‘funeral for higher education’ on Feb. 9 that coincided with the governor’s state of the state address.

In some instances, even student government associations are organizing protests, like at Binghamton University in New York, where over 50 students protested tuition hikes and held signs last week that said, “I chose $UNY ‘cuz it used to be CHEAP” and “Public education must be affordable” (Press Connects, 3/25/09). And at Penn State University in February, the student government organized hundreds of students to protest the governor’s budget proposal that cut $20.3 million from Penn State’s budget while also excluding the university from the Pennsylvania Tuition Relief Act. This move would block many low-income students, and especially oppressed nationality youth, from access to higher education (The Daily Collegian, 2/10/09).

Education is a right

The movement against cuts to education is broad and includes a variety of forces. Students, teachers or professors and staff sometimes find themselves working alongside student government associations, county school boards or university administrations in opposition to cuts by the state legislature. In other cases, the main target of the struggle is against the administrative bodies. The point is that this kind of united front can include different forces at different stages. There is a diverse spectrum of opinion in the movement against the cuts, consequently the demands put forward will differ depending on who is involved.

Progressive activists will need to struggle for the education rights protests to maintain a working-class orientation. Low-income youth must have the right to higher education. Tuition should be frozen. Instead of laying off workers, budget cuts should ‘chop from the top’ and begin with the administrators who make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Programs that were won through struggle, like ethnic studies, women’s centers, day care or LGTBQ centers must be defended.

With good leadership, the movement can safeguard access to education for all, including low-income and oppressed nationality youth, and preserve the gains in education rights that were made by oppressed peoples through decades of struggle. That is the main challenge in front of progressive activists in the education rights movement today.

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