On March 4th, 2010, students, faculty, school workers and parents took to the streets in various cities across the United States. The bulk of the protests occurred in California, where the public education system is the target of a full bore head-on attack by the state and some of its corporate backers. There were walkouts, rallies, highway takeovers and a number of other protests and direct actions. The primary demand of the protesters was to rescind the cuts and fee hikes immediately. This day of protest was part of an ongoing series of actions dedicated to this goal. The movement’s organizers include students, community members, parents, and education workers. The politics range from anarchist to liberal Democrat. The movement has shown some success in organizing folks, but has yet to show any real victories as regards its demands.
In the spring of 2009, a similar movement developed in Vermont around the same type of issues. The primary difference however was that the Vermont movement was oriented toward opposing proposed college tuition hikes, layoffs, and other budgetary manipulations conceived by the administration and trustees at the University of Vermont. In addition, a fair amount of righteous anger was directed at the trustees and administration after it was revealed that the majority of the top-heavy university administration had received bonuses that totaled almost a million dollars. A similar situation exists in California where university and college administrators across the state have received salary increases and other monetary rewards while they tell the citizens of the state that tuition will be going up and that classes will be cut, thereby reducing the number of places available for high school students and others interested in higher education.
In Washington State, a movement is developing around announced budget cuts aimed at the public education system–from kindergarten to the university. Just as in other places mentioned in this article, the proposed cuts will hit those who can least afford it. That is, working class families, many of whom are either unemployed or partially employed due to the current capitalist crisis. Also, like the other situations mentioned here, the growing crisis in Washington state is but the latest volley in a battle over the nature of public education the modern United States. Or, as a recently released statement from a Washington student group known as Democracy Insurgent noted, the university “is undergoing a longterm plan of restructuring and privatization that will make this university less and less accessible to students of color and working class students….” The statement continues by noting that, despite the proclamations of university and government bureaucrats, the proposed layoffs, cuts and fee hikes are not inevitable and out of the control of those bureaucrats. Instead, they are the result of decisions made by the bureaucracy–a bureaucracy whose master is the capitalist system of profit and not the students or even the people of the state of Washington. Of course, the scenario playing out in Washington is essentially the same as that in California, Vermont and every other state or province where education and social service budgets are being attacked.
When I attended the University of Maryland in College Park back in 1974-1975 the state legislature, university administration and the Board of Regents announced a series of budget cuts that included the closure of the newly created Women’s Studies and Black Studies departments. The Student Government Association worked with several student groups, the unionized university workers, and some faculty members to oppose these cuts. We held rallies, did legislative visits, signed petitions and ultimately loudly disrupted a meeting of the Board of Regents. The reasons given for the cuts were the same as those being provided now. 1974 was probably the first full year of the recession that began in 1973 in the wake of the de-escalation of the Vietnam war and the the oil embargo. It is a recession that today’s economic situation is but the latest episode. Tuition back then was quite cheap and has gone up ever since. In addition, the University of Maryland higher education system has put a tiered model into place. In essence, this system places students in different state universities and colleges based on what they can afford. Of course, there are individual exceptions to this model (scholarship students, etc.), but the objective result is a class-based university system, with most of the wealthier students attending the university campuses while working class students end up at the smaller colleges–some that were historically colleges for African-Americans only during the days of legal segregation in Maryland. (I am a firm believer that the school is not as important as the student when it come to getting the most from an education, but the difference in resources on the different campuses is real, even in today’s world of the internet). Anyhow, the model adopted by Maryland described briefly above is now in place in many if not most states across the US. Even it is under attack. In California, it is estimated that 50,000 prospective students will not be able to attend community college because of the cuts being undertaken. Furthermore, the increase in tuition will cause some students to forgo college at least for now.
In 1968 universities around the world became centers of revolt. There were a multitude of issues that drove this revolt, most of them having to do with the role universities played in the modern capitalist society. Many protesters and writers vocalized the issues, but perhaps none did so as succinctly as Daniel Cohn-Bendit when he wrote that “it is the economic, rather than the theoretical role of the university that is predominant.” When Cohn-Bendit wrote this the capitalist economy of the west demanded technicians, managers and bureaucrats by the thousands to oversee the economic expansion fed by the war economy and the rapid expansion of US imperialism. This demanded an expansion of the universities in physical terms and in their recruitment of formerly ignored segments of society–the working class and people of color. Nowadays, as the imperial economy’s demand for humans trained to operate its cogwheels continues to shrink due to the computerization of tasks and fundamental changes in how wealth is created and hoarded by the super-wealthy, the university finds itself in a transitional place. No longer does it need as broad of a base of potential students. By raising tuition costs and canceling classes postsecondary school systems across the nation can limit their student populations by numbers and according to class, since poorer families will no longer be able to afford college even if their children can get in.
So, the fight for public education is more than just another battle by what the mainstream press calls a special interest group. It is a key part of the struggle against the ongoing privatization of US public institutions. It is an element in the battle to re-prioritize US public spending away from the military-industrial complex and toward the public good. It is also the personal struggle of millions of individuals and families to make their lives more fully human. The choices to cut education and social services being made by governments, corporations and their bureaucracies are not the only possible choices. These choices reflect the priorities of those making the choices and the interests they serve. When students and faculty join together to demand funding for the educational system, they are fighting not just for themselves, but for the future. They are also fighting against a corporate consciousness that sees no value in anything that can not be measured in dollars. In fact, it is more than that consciousness that they are fighting; they are fighting the corporate capitalist behemoth itself. This is why this struggle is not just that of students, school workers, faculty and parents, but of all of us.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org