SAN FRANCISCO - Hundreds of thousands of students, parents, faculty, campus workers and community supporters demonstrated in California and around the country March 4 in a massive protest to save public education.
The "Day of Action to Defend Public Education," springing from demonstrations last fall at the University of California at Berkeley and other UC schools, grew to encompass education communities from kindergarten through graduate school in cities and towns around the country.
In San Francisco, actions began early in the morning, with many campuses, from elementary schools through state universities holding their own protests. Feeder marches brought thousands to Civic Center Plaza for a 5 p.m. "Rally for California's Future."
Among the crowd was the Ramirez family. Holding a sign her class had made, Alvarado School third grader Jessica Ramirez balanced on a pedestal, so she'd be seen better. With over 35 students in her class, she said, "We need more teachers!" Her brother, fifth grader Cesar Ramirez, said his class had fewer school supplies and materials than before. Their mother, Maria Ramirez, said she thought "several hundred" families from the school had come to the rally.
A group of women students from California State University-East Bay carried their college's banner. They said the CSU system's over-30 percent tuition hike has left many students unable to continue their education. Those still able to enroll must remain in school longer, they added, because it's harder to schedule courses required for graduation as faculty members are laid off and classes eliminated.
In Oakland and other districts, schools conducted their spring "disaster drills" to dramatize their funding crisis.
Last fall University of California regents raised tuition more than 30 percent. Community colleges are also experiencing big fee hikes, layoffs and elimination of courses.
California's public education system has been buffeted by budget cuts as Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrat-led state legislature struggle with a $20 billion deficit in the upcoming general fund budget, on top of a $60 billion shortfall last year. Republican legislators, backed by the governor, refuse to raise taxes; the Democrats' majority does not reach the two-thirds needed to pass a budget or raise taxes.
At the day of action, many signs urged passage of the California Democracy Act, which would allow budgets and taxes to pass with a simple majority. Other measures include a bill to provide an additional $2 billion for education through taxing oil extraction - something done by all other oil-producing states.
Though California's situation is among the worst, public education has suffered massive cuts throughout the country. Actions were held in over 30 states:
• Hundreds of University of Illinois faculty and graduate assistants marched with signs reading, "Furlough legislators," to protest furloughs and pay cuts affecting thousands of university workers.
• University of Texas at Austin students and staff protested an increase of over 5 percent in tuition and fees.
• In New York City, parents, teachers and students rallied at City Hall against the impending closure of 19 schools and expansion of charter schools.
• Demonstrators in Olympia, Wash., bearing a mock coffin emblazoned with "R.I.P. Education, interrupted a legislative debate by singing "Amazing Grace" and a protest song.
The campaign continues. On March 5, the "March for California's Future" leaves Los Angeles for a 48-day march through the Central Valley to the state capitol, Sacramento. The march, initiated by the California Federation of Teachers, has set goals to "restore the promise of public education, a government and economy that work for all Californians, and fair tax and budget policies to fund California's future."
Photo: PW/Marilyn Bechtel