April 11, 2003

Books, Not Bombs – Students Protest A War On Education

By: David Bacon

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—A new protest movement is happening in California as bombs fall over Iraq. Young people, who complain that their future outlook is shrinking to military service after high school, are taking to the streets.

The immediate crisis confronting students is the governor’s decision to target the community college system for deep cuts as he seeks to close a $34 billion dollar deficit. Meanwhile, rising unemployment is making it harder for those who do make it through community college to find a job on the other side.

“In my school we’re losing 200 classes this semester alone,” said Dayna Johnson, a student from El Camino College. “Now they’re saying we may not have summer session at all.”

Students protesting. Photo by David Bacon.

But increasingly, students see a larger problem framing the state’s budget crisis. Twenty thousand young people and their teachers from all over California set off down the capitol mall late last month. Shouts of “Books, not bombs!” traveled in waves up and down the line of marchers. Sign after sign condemned the war abroad. “The war on terror,” said one sign in the Sacramento march, “is a war on us.”

“Unless these budget cuts are stopped,” Maria Reyes from Oxnard said, “students like me are not going to be able to continue going to school.”

Johnson added, “What the federal government is spending on the war in one day could save the education of all of us.”

Though a national recession has turned California’s past budget surpluses into a yawning deficit, no help is forthcoming from Washington. Instead, in early April, President Bush demanded and got $78 billion to fight the Iraq war. Democrats in Congress fought to include more money for police and the domestic cost of “homeland security.” But neither they nor the Republicans introduced a bill to save California’s community colleges.

Governor Grey Davis’ proposed solution will likely result in a massive forced exodus of students from the system. Planned cuts in programs designed to retain at-risk students will affect the poor the most, especially students of color — represented on community college campuses in far higher percentages than at the state university system.

Helene Jara, a Cabrillo College professor for 27 years, says that aid and outreach programs will be cut 45 percent, “so we’re losing 18 of our 35 tutors. These are the people that help our students stay in school once they get here.”

The governor plans to increase student fees from $11 to $24 per unit.

Marty Hittelman, a teacher at Los Angeles Community College and head of the state’s union council for community college faculty, points out that for every $1 increase in per unit tuition, community colleges typically lose 1 percent of their students. The fee increase could shove out over 200,000 young people, more than the combined student population of all the campuses of the University of California.

“Lost revenue from lost enrollment will be 1.5 times the money the state hopes to get in the fee increases,” Hittelman said.

In an irony not lost on the Sacramento marchers, Congress last year granted military recruiters access to every high school student in the country. Graduates may soon find it easier to go to war than go to school.

Most U.S. soldiers in Iraq are the same age as the young people who massed in Sacramento. Community college cuts could greatly affect their transition back into civilian life at home. Vets will find postwar jobs scarce; in the first week of war, 445,000 nationwide filed new claims for unemployment benefits.

Other social movements are making links to the war in Iraq. Annual parades around California commemorating the birth of farm worker leader Cesar Chavez, for example, also became anti-war protests. Hundreds of marchers in San Francisco and Los Angeles carried signs in Spanish opposing the Iraq invasion.

Protesters say the United States may no longer be rich enough to afford both guns and butter. One teacher from Morgan Hill, Chris Mink, explained her participation in a San Francisco anti-war rally. “We have enough to do here at home, instead of putting a war in Iraq in front of the well-being of our kids.”

David Bacon (dbacon@igc.org), writes widely on labor, immigration and education issues.

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