When University of California Berkeley students staged building occupations last fall, their furious, brazen response to startling tuition hikes and staff cutbacks captured the attention of the world, recalling the radical actions of earlier generations.
Yet the thrust behind the March 4 Strike and Day of Action, a mass mobilization for public education and services that is reaching into all corners of the state and spreading nationwide, appears to stem from widespread agitation that extends well beyond the flare-ups on college campuses.
"What's historic about this is that pre-K through PhD has never walked together," said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents faculty in the California State University system. "We have often been pitted against one another, and I think everyone feels finally, in the end, there is no difference in importance between pre-K and PhD. We need it all."
The historic new alliance faces an uphill climb in an environment characterized by a devastating budget crisis at the state level. California the world's eighth-largest economy hovers around 47th in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending, and the most recent wave of budget rollbacks has cut to the bone.
Students and teachers across the Bay Area argue that with dramatic slashes in funding, the educational system is failing youth. Class sizes are ballooning to claustrophobic levels, students are unable to take their desired courses, fees are going up, bathrooms are getting cleaned less frequently, and staffers are getting stressed by overwhelming workloads. "Classes are jam-packed," Taiz says. "You have kids sitting on the floor. You have students just begging to be allowed in a class."
As University of California students decry a 32 percent hike in fees, the California State University system is suffering from damage inflicted by 2,000 faculty layoffs over the past year. The San Francisco Unified School District, meanwhile, is staring down an estimated $113 million budget deficit over the next two years, and 900 layoff notices recently were issued to teachers, librarians, secretaries, and other school employees to warn them that their jobs could be slashed by the end of the school year.
When San Francisco's school district faced a gaping budget shortfall during the last budget cycle, it was propped up by a combination of Rainy Day Fund reserve dollars and stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With no such safety nets in place this time around, anxiety levels are higher and the outlook is uncertain.
March 4 is shaping up to be more than an opportunity to vent frustrations to elected leaders. Instead, organizers describe it as a rallying point for a movement to defend public education that has caught on like wildfire, uniting people from different worlds. Pickets and rallies will be staged throughout the region. Thousands are expected to swarm Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Students from a handful of East Bay campuses are organizing marches to Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. Students and faculty from Berkeley will be boarding buses to take the message to Sacramento. The Oakland Unified School district will host a districtwide mock "disaster drill" to call attention to the disastrous budget. Even public transit activists opposed to the latest round of Muni service cuts and fare hikes are joining the protests, hoping to expand the discussion to support vital public services (for details on these and other events, see "Alerts" opposite this page).
"We've never gotten this level of activism over anything in SF since I've been here," says Matthew Hardy, communications director for United Educators of San Francisco.