Occupying the Capitol - Page 3

Amid education cuts and tuition hikes, students increase pressure in Sacramento

Thousands of students gathered at the Capitol to demand more state support for education.

But the Millionaire's Tax was sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers, and it has now been endorsed by this student general assembly. John Rizzo, president of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees, also endorsed the measure.

"We've got to tell the state of California that we cannot continue this. We cannot continue the cuts to our community colleges, to UCs, to the California State Universities," said Rizzo, speaking at a March 1 rally in San Francisco.

According to a recent report, of five polls conducted throughout California, each initiative has majority support, but voter prefer the Millionaire's Tax, with a recent Field Poll showing 63 percent support.

Legislators are also at work trying to increase education funding. Assembly Speaker Perez has introduced a bill that would slash tuition fees by two-thirds at CSU and UC schools for students of families making less than $150,000 per year. The bill would also allocate funding to city colleges throughout the state, for them to determine how to best use the money.

The cost of the plan, about $1 billion, would be paid by eliminating a corporate tax loophole that the Legislature approved in 2009, which would allow companies to choose the cheaper of two formulas for calculating their taxes. Critics have called the legislation bad for business, saying that removing tax incentives would hurt California companies.

"The California Middle Class Scholarship Act is very simple," Perez told students at UC Davis when he unveiled the bill on Feb. 3. "Too many families are getting squeezed out of higher education. For students whose families make $150,000 a year or less, too much to qualify for our current financial aid system, but not enough to be able to write a check for the cost of education, without feeling that pinch, the Middle Class Scholarship Act reduces fees at the UC system and at the CSU system by two-thirds, giving tremendous assistance to those families to make college affordable again."

Education advocates say California needs to do something to reverse the spiraling cost of higher education in California, which could do long-term damage to the state, affecting young people and businesses that need skilled workers and spiraling out from there. And these advocates say this short-sighted strategy is easily preventable if there is the political will to address it.

"There are a lot of sources of revenue that are not being taken advantage of," Lisa Schiff, a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco, told us.

Even if tuitions were lowered or—as the most ambitious of protesters demand—higher education was made free, most former students would still be saddled with massive debt. As costs have risen, debts of hundreds of thousands of dollars are commonplace. With the job market recovery slow and painful, graduates often feel helpless to pay back their debt.

Robert Meister, a professor of Political and Social Thought at UC Santa Cruz and president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations, has long argued that the state's higher education systems ought to focus on keeping tuitions low and student debt in check (see "In the red," 1/11/11).

Yet he told us that growing income inequality makes people even more desperate for a college education and willing to accept levels of student debt that limit their ability to become anything more than corporate cogs after graduation. "Their ability to raise tuition is a function of the growth of income inequality," he told us.

In his speech at UC Davis, Perez cast the issue as one of a disinvestment in the state's future: "California's public colleges and universities has been one of our most prestigious institutions, and, unfortunately, because of the collapse of the economy, we've moved away from fully investing in those universities and colleges."

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