Last time I gave a speech at a rally, as a graduate student, I just winged it and it didn’t go so well--so today I wrote some things down. I want to talk mainly about the political situation surrounding public education and some new openings in the political context.
Since I arrived here a decade ago, I’ve watched the California legislature and Governors Davis, Schwarzenegger and Brown systematically de-fund the greatest public university system in the world. Meanwhile, the university has tried to balance its books on the backs of the students.
Over those ten years, many of us (students, faculty, staff and sometimes administrators) have organized, lobbied and protested but the cuts have just kept coming. In the last three years, the Great Recession has made California’s budget crisis even worse, the cuts have been deeper, and the tuition increases have been just ridiculous.
Part of the problem is Prop 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that required a 2/3 supermajority for any increase in California’s taxes. This allowed a minority of Republican legislators to hold a blue state hostage to their anti-tax, anti-government, anti-equality agenda and forced us into a budget crisis. Unfortunately, Californians seemed in no mood to repeal Prop 13 despite the deterioration of California’s public services (and especially its schools). And any attempt at repeal would certainly be countered by a massive corporate advertising blitz.
It’s a bleak picture. But lately things are looking up a bit. The Democrats are currently two seats away from a 2/3 supermajority in both the Senate and Assembly and the November election may allow them to achieve it. In 2008, Californians gave a citizen’s commission (rather than the legislature) the power to draw legislative districts. Under these new districts, the Democrats will most likely pick up enough seats in the State Senate and MAY be able to do so in the State Assembly. Two of the closest Assembly races are local. The 8th District in East Sacramento County where three Democrats face off against two Republicans and the 9th district in Elk Grove/Lodi where UC Davis Med School Professor Dr. Richard Pan faces off against two Republicans. The top two vote getters in the June 5 primary will go on to the November election.
Another development is both hopeful and terrifying. Governor Brown has placed a referendum on the November ballot to temporarily raise income taxes for the wealthy and sales taxes for everyone. If the measure passes, he promises an increase for higher education of 4 percent per year for three years. But if it fails, more cuts. The measure appears to have the support of a slim majority of the voters at this moment, but only if two similar initiatives are removed from the ballot.
If the Democrats do win a supermajority, the battle to restore UC funding will still be at the beginning. Democratic legislators, like most politicians, are cowards and many have bought into the Republican argument that tax increases retard economic growth. We will need to pressure them hard--both during and after the election. The Governor’s commitment to higher education is also suspect.
We also must pressure the UC and UC Davis Administrations. Unfortunately, the administration has a very narrow view of politics. It is resigned to meekly lobbying legislators for funding, failing miserably, and then raising tuition. It has not yet committed to campaigning for a new legislative majority that can re-fund the UC System and forcing that majority to do so. We must demand such a commitment from the regents, UC President Mark Yudof, and our Chancellor (who happens to be on the defensive right now).
The protests have been making a difference. They caused Yudof and the regents to back off the latest round of tuition increases, for the moment. And 74% of Californians now believe that state funding for higher education is inadequate. Unfortunately, only 45% are willing to pay higher taxes to restore funding.
We need to help Californians understand that new revenues will be necessary if we hope to preserve affordable higher education. We also need to convince them that the benefits of affordable higher education do not just go to individual students but to all the lives they touch. Affordable public education helps Californians to live more prosperous, healthy and meaningful lives, it helps them understand and participate in their democracy, it promotes social mobility and equality of opportunity, and it promotes economic and cultural growth.
The occupy movement has so far remained non-partisan and non-electoral in order to avoid being co-opted by the Democrats and in order to seek deeper levels of change than simply electing a new slate of legislators beholden to corporate campaign contributions.
That’s probably wise for occupy, but the movement to defend higher education pre-dates occupy and is bigger than occupy. There are roles and responsibilities for all of us.
As a movement, we must work at all levels—though not everyone must work at every level—protesting, changing public opinion, lobbying elected officials, and winning elections. At this moment, we have a political opening—Let’s use it.
I want to end with the names of three websites that I think are especially useful (just google them): ReFund California, Remaking the University, and Fight for your Education. I also have links to all of these on my blog: after-dinner critic.