Seattle students against cuts

December 16, 2011

Dan Trocolli reports on a spirited demonstration against education cuts in Seattle.

CHANTING "WE'RE the future of our nation, no more cuts to education!" high school students from all over Seattle walked out of class December 14 to protest proposed cuts in education funding. Nearly 700 students converged on the University of Washington's Red Square for a rally that challenged state lawmakers' plans for more budget cuts.

Washington faces a $2 billion shortfall this year, and Gov. Christine Gregoire called a special session of the state legislature starting November 28 to balance the budget before the regular session starts in January. After nearly $10 billion in cuts over the last three year, Gregoire is proposing over $250 million more in reductions from K-12 education and another $160 million from higher education.

The student walkout was sparked after protests against the special session in the state capital of Olympia. Unions representing state and municipal employees mobilized rallies during the first week of the session. Teachers in the Social Equality Educators (SEE), a rank-and-file group of activist teachers from the Seattle area, helped lead attempts by union and community activists to Occupy the Capitol building and disrupt the legislature.

Students from Garfield High School rally after walking out against budget cuts
Students from Garfield High School rally after walking out against budget cuts

A judge has declared that Washington's legislature is out of compliance with the state constitution mandating education funding to be the state's "paramount duty." Therefore, SEE sent a team of teachers to Olympia to make a citizen's arrest of the legislature for breaking the law. As the House session began, SEE members unfurled a giant banner reading, "Citizen's Arrest: Lawbreakers need to fully fund education" from the balcony of the House chambers at the beginning of the session.

Back in Seattle, when students at Garfield High School learned that a teacher, Jesse Hagopian, was arrested for "mic-checking" the Senate Ways and Means committee, they moved into action. Students created a Facebook page titled "Free Mr. Hagopian." Within hours, they had hundreds of students following it. When Hagopian was released later that day, students changed the group's name to "Seattle Student Walkout for Education."

On December 7, over 500 Garfield students walked out of class and marched to City Hall. Students made flyers to hand out detailing the cuts and the impact on education. Once at City Hall, they organized a speakout using the people's mic, having filled up the front steps of the building. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn came out and praised students for their efforts.

Garfield senior and Black Student Union President Obadiah Terry remarked on the support for the walkout:

You can look around your class and see you've got 34 students in a 28-student room, or your teacher has to move around the school and share rooms, or your science teacher has to buy materials for hands-on labs. You can see it all around you, and when everyone realizes it at once, we all know we need to do something about it together.

FOLLOWING THE tremendous turnout for the walkout after only a few days, Garfield students reached out to high school students all across the city and formed Students of Washington for Change to organize a citywide walkout.

As John Trupin, a senior at Garfield, said, "We want students to be involved, to be educated, because even though we can't vote, decisions are being made that affect us, and we deserve to have our voices heard."

On December 14, students marched and took city buses to the University of Washington to meet up with other students there. Though in the middle of finals, many UW students gathered around and chanted in support. As the protest grew, with groups from different schools coming in, one after the other, students from each one spoke about the effects of cuts on them and the importance of continuing the fight.

One Roosevelt High School senior, Lena Jaffe, talked about the value of public schools, "I'm lucky," she said. "I received a great education. It changed my life. It shaped me into the person I am today, and I want to make sure that all the students that come after me have the same opportunities. We truly are the future, and we're going to do everything we can to defend that future."

Hagopian, who spoke at the rally after school got out, addressed the inappropriate priorities of the budget cuts: "Paramount duty means before you give tax loopholes to big banks, you fund the schools. Paramount duty means before you give tax breaks to the 1 percent, you fund education."

Students then marched a few blocks to the state House Speaker Frank Chopp's office to speak out and drop off placards signed by everyone that registered opposition to the cuts. Students chanted: "Chop from the top."

So far, the legislature has been unable to come to an agreement about what to do to balance the budget, and will address the issue again when it reconvenes in January. Students of Washington for Change have started discussing plans to go to Olympia to take their concerns directly to legislators.

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