October 25, 2016
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After Protests, Education Activists Strategize


New America Media, News Feature, Nadia Prupis, 

OAKLAND, Calif.--Ten days after statewide actions against tuition hikes and budget cuts to California’s schools and colleges, a group of activists gathered during a day-long session of planning and strategizing the next steps.

Some 30 student leaders, professors, and organizers gathered at the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL) in Oakland, to talk about action beyond the protests, comprehensive education reform, and how to build on the momentum of statewide protests for the future. SOUL was founded in 1996 during protests against UC Berkeley’s plans to cut affirmative action measures. Every Sunday, organizers meet there to discuss campaigns and strategies.

Aaron Buchbinder, a second-year grad student at San Francisco State University, is one of those organizers. He will graduate this spring with a Master's in social work, but his concentration, Social Action and Change, is in danger of being cut. Buchbinder, helped lead a protest in San Francisco as a member of the Students Faculty Staff United coalition on his campus. His agenda included discussion of alternatives to the budget cuts and ways to galvanize the student body.

“At SOUL, we're inspired by the mobilization towards educational justice,” said lead trainer Nefertiti Altan. “We wanted a space for people to reflect. How do we keep this momentum going? How do we continue that movement?”

Educational activism at SOUL includes a short history lesson and a look at current issues and problems. Kim Geron, professor of political science at Cal State East Bay, noted that the effort to create education in this nation was “a huge fight.

“Harvard opened as an elite university before elementary schools were established,” Geron said. “And the initial push for public higher education was meant for white middle class students.” In the late 1960s, Geron explained, activism focused on expanding admissions to public universities. Today, Geron said, accessibility is still an issue, but affordability comes first.

Liz Hall, executive director of the University of California Student Association (UCSA), said that California has broken the promise of a free public higher education, which was made in the state’s master plan in 1960. “The reality is that those promises were not made to young people in the state of California today,” Hall said. “Those promises were made to a white middle-class demographic. And it's no accident that as our demographics have changed, public policy has also changed.”

In California's current economy, Hall said, a free public education is impossible. The priority is to keep students from dropping out of school this year and to continue promoting reasonable solutions to tuition increases. “We're not being shy about what we're asking for,” Hall said.

The UCSA supports Assembymember Alberto Torrico’s proposed bill AB 656, which would tax oil extracted in the state for a Higher Education fund. Such a tax could generate $1billion a year, according to Torrico. 

Another proposal would impose a fee of $32 per state income tax return, which would provide enough funding to roll back tuition and fees to 2000-2001 levels, adjusted for inflation, and open educational opportunities for more than 40,000 students.

UCSF Professor Stanton Glantz, who analyzed the proposal, said that the $32 figure could decrease depending on the number of people on the tax return. “The discussion on taxes has been very abstract,” he said. “No one before us had figured out what it would cost to actually fix the system. The answer is: not much for most people.” 

Buchbinder emphasized that university students need to work in coalition with other groups facing budget cuts, and mentioned that the SFSU Stay in School Family Resource Center was in danger of losing its funding.

“The first cuts are always to marginalized groups, but there is no solidarity between them,” he said. “Building that coalition is challenging.” 

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