An estimated 8,000 students, educators and supporters from across California, including a busload from Berkeley, flocked to Sacramento Monday to stage a mass demonstration in support of California’s public universities and colleges.
Frustrated by the rising cost of education and ongoing deep cuts in state funding, the army of sign-wielding protesters marched on the state capitol to demand that legislators restore funding to public higher education.
Tuition costs at California’s public universities and colleges have skyrocketed by more than 300 percent over the last decade as lawmakers have slashed education funding by more than 20 percent — part of the effort to close ongoing massive state budget deficits.
The Berkeley contingent — more than 50 students, faculty, staff and administrators — traveled to Sacramento to join groups from other UC campuses, state universities and community colleges for the mass day of action.
“Students, faculty, staff, administrators — we are all on the same side in wanting to maintain a strong university, and there was real consensus among the deans that taking the bus to Sacramento today would be a good thing to do,” said Kim Voss, Berkeley’s acting dean of social sciences who rode the bus to Sacramento.
In a campuswide email, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau had urged students, faculty and staff to participate in the rally. Several other deans, including Henry Brady, Carla Hesse, Keith Gilless, Steve Martin and Mark Richards, also boarded the bus.
“I appreciated the sentiment of the chancellor’s email in urging the campus to participate in today’s demonstration, and I think it’s great that faculty and administrators are making the trip with students,” said 21-year-old Griffin Cassara, a senior in art history and media studies.
“In times like this, there’s a lot of pressure on individuals to create change, but when people stand up as one of 10,000 then the action becomes a lot more powerful,” Cassara said.
In 2011, the 10-campus University of California system was forced to absorb $750 million in budget cuts. Last year marked the first time student contributions to the UC system — more than $2.9 billion in tuition and fees — surpassed state support, which amounted to almost $2.4 billion.
Diana Wear, assistant director at Berkeley’s Center for Science Technology, Medicine and Society, said she went to Sacramento because “I wanted my body counted in opposition to what’s happening to public education.”
“Education doesn’t need to be free, but it must be affordable for everyone, and my heart goes out to all these kids who are saddled with enormous student debt,” Wear added.
Sophomore Allyson Wallace also joined the effort. “I don’t know if two younger siblings will be able to afford to come to UC if tuition keeps rising, and that’s just not right,“ said the 20-year-old Orange County-native, who has taken out student loans and works part-time to supplement her financial aid package and make ends meet.
The University of California Student Association, which had wrapped up its annual Student Lobby Conference the previous day, remained in Sacramento Monday to lobby legislators for new taxes to fund education. After the rally, hundreds of students and supporters filed into the Capitol rotunda as they took their lobbying effort from the steps to the hallways and meeting rooms inside.
“I’m here today in Sacramento to support students in their efforts,” said Berkeley Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Harry Le Grande, who rode the bus to the state capital as well.
“This has got to be a sustained effort, and in upcoming elections, students and voters have got to start asking questions of their politicians on the importance of funding education,” he added, as the campus group made the slow return journey to Berkeley.
Earlier in the day, the coalition of students, educators and unions staged a rally on the steps of the Capitol building as part of the “March in March” event, chanting “enough is enough” and “fund our future,” before warning lawmakers to “hear us out or we’ll vote you out.”
Student speakers representing campuses within the UC, California State University and community college systems whipped up emotions among the crowd as they delivered their message to lawmakers and California voters.
“Budget cuts and rising costs make it harder and harder for low-income students and students of color to get into UC,” said Berkeley ASUC Senator Sydney Fang. “It’s time for state legislators to stand with us, and it’s time for us to reclaim our dream.”
A raucous wave of approving cheers and chants greeted Van Jones as the civil rights activist, environmental advocate and former special adviser to President Obama stepped forward to speak.
“You’re not asking for charity,” Jones told the throngs stretched out before him. “We’re talking about investing in people for future success.
“That’s not charity, that’s return on investment because no country can succeed without investing in education,” he added.
The rally drew an all-star lineup of incumbent Democratic politicians including, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
“California is watching, and the people support you,” Perez told the crowd.
“You’re sending a powerful message that we need to fund higher education to protect the future of the next generation and that we have to keep our promises to make education accessible and affordable for everybody in California — we know that promise isn’t being kept,” he admitted.
Perez and Steinberg outlined a series of legislative proposals and ballot measures designed to re-fund public education and reduce students’ financial burden. The Democratic power-brokers urged students and educators to lead their campuses and communities in lobbying for increased funding of education in the coming election season, when several measures to raise new state revenues could appear on the ballot.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who did not attend the event, is calling on voters to back several measures that would temporarily increase the sales tax by half a cent and raise income taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year. If successful, a portion of the revenue would be directed to education.
The California Federation of Teachers is backing an alternative “Millionaires’ Tax” ballot measure, which would increase taxes on Californians earning up to $2 million per year by 3-5 percent.
Several busloads of protesters with the Occupy movement, which had pledged not to disrupt the “March in March” rally, also made the trip to Sacramento Monday, joining fellow Occupiers who had marched from the East Bay.
Later, about 100 Occupy protesters entered the Capitol to demand that legislators increase taxes on the wealthy, restore funding to higher education, forgive student debt and reform governance of state universities and colleges. Dozens of protesters were arrested after refusing to leave the building, according to reports.
More information on UC and the state budget process, including links to “how the budget works” and “budget myths and facts”, is available through the UC Budget News website.
Further information about supporting UC Berkeley through advocacy, visit the Cal Advocacy website.