Uniting the Public Education Movement:
from our Campuses to a Statewide Student Union
March 1 was a national Day of Action during which between hundreds and more than a thousand of students and workers held protests on campuses across the US against the budget cuts, racist resegregation policies, and projects of privatization of public education. On March 5, the annual “soft” march on Sacramento called by student governments in California was instilled with life by the participation of the grassroots education movement, both students and unions, as well as allies from Occupy. The march ended in a 5-hour occupation of the Capitol building by over 300 people. The National Day of Action on March 1st, when most protests focused on local problems, and the March 5th March and Occupation of the Capitol were a response to the systemic nature of the attacks on public education. While cuts are implemented on our campuses by local districts and governing bodies, the de-funding of education is being accomplished in Sacramento by the Brown administration and at a national level by Obama who is gutting state budgets to pay the costs of the wars and the bailout. The strategic importance of March 1st through 5th was in its targeting of all of these levels, a step towards building a unified national movement for the full funding of a democratic, accessible, and free public education system.
The Importance of Targeting Local Administrations
The decisions to slash public education funding as a mechanism to resolve the crisis-induced budgetary deficit, and as part of a larger national project of privatization of education under Obama, are being made by the Brown administration in Sacramento. But when those cuts hit local districts and systems of education, it is the governing bodies of the latter that decide how those cuts should be administered. They carry out these policies by implementing the cuts on the ground – thus they serve as direct agents of the austerity measures. And they have become the most recognizable face of the cuts. Local administrators are actively collaborating in the austerity plans instead of mounting a real resistance to them; a resistance that cannot mean the lobbying of Democratic and Republican politicians or supporting their bullshit “shared pain” solutions but rather organizing effective mass resistance to these same politicians and their policies. Further, campus leadership often typifies corruption and cronyism, and is enforced by political impunity, which existed long before the onset of the crisis. Ballooning administrative positions , rising salaries (despite the budget cuts), no-bid contracts handed out to family friends and business cronies, exuberant legal fees, etc., are all additional reasons they are a target. The fact that governing boards, such as the UC Regents, theCSUBoard of Trustees, the various district boards of the community colleges and K-12 systems, are the sole decision-makers on local budgets and policies underlies what is the greatest political problem in public education and under capitalism in general: working people- students and education workers in this case- have no direct say over the decisions supposedly made on their behalf. This is probably the greatest source of the rage and opposition that the student and worker movement has towards their local governing bodies. It is also the reason why one of the consistent and permanent rallying cries of the movement has been and will continue to be for student, worker, and community democracy to run the schools and the entire public education system. And it is only by attaining such a broad direct democracy that we can conclusively end the mismanagement of funds.
Building Bases of Struggle on Campus: the Real Source of our Power
To effectively counter our local administrations, we need to organize a much tighter unity of our campus communities against their attacks. This means working to bring together faculty, all sectors of school staff, and the many communities that make up our student bodies, including communities too often marginalized in the movement yet feeling the worst effects of the cuts – student parents, immigrant and undocumented students, disabled students, communities of color, veterans, and the LGBTQ community. We have to move beyond the abstract unity of creating “safe spaces” to a real political unity to fight – one that combines respect, inclusion, material support (translation, childcare, etc.) and conscious development of the leadership of these key campus sectors with political education of the entire movement about the unique impact of the cuts to these communities and a set of demands that concretely unifies us through addressing all facets of the attacks, including workers’ rights and oppression. What does unification look like? It begins by drawing together all the forces who are willing to fight- whether it be to stop a certain program from getting cut, to get a certain amount of classes added, to acquire greater access perhaps in the form of scholarships for the undocumented and underrepresented, to divest from sweatshops or Israel, etc. – into an organization for struggle. This initial body, sometimes existing in very small numbers, has already done a great service by bringing into connection those most willing to fight. From there it becomes immediately possible and necessary to organize the broader masses and to bring them into the struggle by raising the organization of the movement to a higher level – the mass democratic and participatory self-organizing space, for example, the general assembly or mass membership meeting of the union. Within spaces like General Assemblies, political power shifts as each individual becomes an active part of a collective process of decision-making around what demands unify the movement to fight and the plan of action that will be carried out to achieve these demands. Through carrying out these decisions together, our movements are finally able to break out of isolation and bring the struggle to every corner, classroom, and office of the campus, building a mass movement with the power to win. Therefore, it is necessary that the movement and participants build the highest level of respect and commitment to the decisions of the general assembly, mass meeting, etc. because 1) this is the only way to build mass, radical political democracy and show the campus community a real alternative to the dictatorship style governance process of the administration, 2) the decisions unite the movement and the many different sectors within it, and 3) the entire movement is propelled into united action that alone is capable of winning even partial victories.
Targeting Brown’s Austerity and Budget Cuts
In the process of waging localized struggles, students and workers increasingly face the limitations to forcing local solutions. At the state level, Brown and the Democrats have only intensified the attacks on public education begun under Schwarzenegger. Since 2008, they have collectively cut $18 billion from K-12 and adult education, $800 million from Community Colleges, $750 million from the CSUs, and $1.3 billion from the UCs. The result: 40,000 teachers and school workers laid off, school closures as a yearly reality, rising fees and reduced access for working-class families, increasing privatization via charters in the K-12s, reductions in the school year, heightened emphasis on standardized testing results, increased class sizes, and decreased access for undocumented and racially oppressed communities to higher education. It is unimaginable that any long-term solutions can be reached by restricting the struggle to the campus and district level. Facing this reality, the March 5th Capitol occupation established clearly that a fully-funded, free, public education system for all, through a California-wide (and national) progressive system of taxation on corporations, banks, and the super-rich is the encompassing demand and solution of the entire education movement. But to win this demand, we need to go beyond one day unified actions, break out of our isolation on our individual campuses, and build real unity to wield our existing strength against the Brown government and the attacks as a whole. This means developing statewide organizing bodies that correspond to this task and can push forward a process of mass mobilizations, such as walkouts, rallies, marches, occupations, etc., and especially strikes that completely paralyze our schools, showing our social power and forcing back the project of privatization. The very intense last three years of education struggle in California created the foundation for a united statewide movement & strong bases of struggle that can provide leadership and galvanize the rest of the movement. This was the case, for example, with UC Berkeley in 2009 and 2010. UCB was in no way the only highly mobilized campus, but it played a leadership role in pushing consistently for statewide organization. Today, recent struggles at Pasadena City College around cuts to classes and Santa Monica College, where students recently forced the cancellation of a two-tier privatization plan for the Summer session, are developing the kind of consistent mobilization that can create real strongholds of resistance in Southern California. The same with ongoing mobilizations across Los Angeles against cuts to adult education, with protests continuing across the city and thousands of students and teachers involved. Let’s develop these bases and use them to push for greater statewide unity. Building campus mobilizations and forging cross-sector unity are hardly independent projects. The recent upsurge of struggle at SMC is a clear example of the role of regional solidarity and coordination in pushing forward local fights. At the recent protest at the SMC Board of Trustees, a critical turning point in the anti-privatization battle there, Pasadena City College, LA Mission College, UCLA,CSUDominguez Hills, LA Valley College, and El Camino College all sent contingents of students in solidarity. When the police suddenly attacked the student protesters, many of the best and most experienced Los Angeles organizers were on the scene working in unity to take the injured to safety, reorganize students outside, and craft on the spot a strategy to hold the police and Board of Trustees accountable.
Towards A Statewide Student Union
Because the power of the state government is even more closely intertwined with the ruling elite, to defeat its plans and attacks, to change its long-term privatization policies, and finally to overthrow its regime, student and worker resistance must be developed across the state to take on not only the local ruling bodies, but throw the entire state ruling apparatus into crisis. It is towards this level of struggle that all militants in the unions and the schools must have a vision of reaching; our path must be illuminated by this process of mobilization that begins with building strong militant bases of struggle. Today, after three years of ups and downs, the most important conclusion that the student movement has drawn towards these strategic tasks is the need for a statewide student union. The call for a meeting of students on the weekend of May 19 to begin a statewide discussion on the prospects, challenges and tasks of building a statewide student union may become one the most important moments in the history of the contemporary public education movement. The perspective today is to continue building bases of struggle in union locals and on campuses across the state, to move forward with the project of the statewide student union-even if at a snail’s pace, and to do this work through an insistent and democratic process of unifying struggles on our campuses and across the state. The democratic self-organization of the workers and students, the obligation of solidarity and unity in struggle, and the permanent process of mobilization and escalation increasingly targeting the State – these are the political and organizational foundations upon which La Voz knows we can defeat the austerity and privatization plans of the U.S. bourgeoisie and shift towards a transformative project of free, quality, democratically-run public education for all. In the long term, this is linked to a socialist project for our society as a whole.