Challenging the endless cuts

February 15, 2011

Akasha Perez is an activist at San Francisco State University and a member of the SFSU chapter of CSU Students for Quality Education. She talked to David Elaine Alt about the impact of the budget cuts and fee hikes that have been imposed on California campuses--and the struggle ahead as activists prepare for a March 2 day of action to defend public education.

HOW HAVE the budget cuts affected students at SFSU?

THE CUTS have been terrible. I have seen students crying in the hallways when they can't get in to the classes they need to graduate. I have even seen teachers just as frustrated because they want to do their job, but are forced to deny students access to their classes.

The state is raising the fees in the community colleges by $10 a unit, which for a full-time student can add hundreds of dollars each semester. Last year, they imposed a $600 fee after classes started. And if you didn't have the money, you couldn't go to class. They want to kick out students who lack the minimum number of units. You can't change majors.

This has basically changed from being a public education, where students only had to pay fees and for books, to a private education where students have to pay tuition. Students at many state institutions now pay more than 50 percent of the cost.

There's also forced graduation, where they will graduate you if you have the necessary number of units. It means you can't double major, or even minor in some cases. For example, a friend was working on a double major in political science and history and was forced to graduate one semester early, before finishing the history degree. That was a $20,000 investment, and it's important when applying to law school.

Protesters rally against cuts at SFSU on the 2010 March 4 national day of action
Protesters rally against cuts at SFSU on the 2010 March 4 national day of action (Steve Rhodes)

Teachers are frustrated, since they have to say no to students. They got a 10 percent pay cut, but still have the same amount of work.

There has been a 232 percent increase in tuition/fees since 2002. What is the future? I have some friends whose parents are saying apply out of state.

HOW HAVE the cuts affected different students' ability to access education?

IT'S DIFFICULT to graduate when you have to deal with a high cost of living, transportation and work, or you can't afford them at all. The reality is that on average, state students graduate in six years if they finish their degrees at all.

They want to deny matriculation to freshmen who don't take and pay for "early start" summer classes. This isn't a small number of people--58 percent of students need remedial classes in math and English--and what does that say about the quality of K-12 education? But these are mostly students, whose first language is not English and people coming from communities of color. The administration wants to do this because it makes them look good--since it removes struggling students.

There are kids who live in cars because they can't afford housing, and who are collecting cans to make money. Some students live at home and have to commute. Others couch-surf. Others move back to their community, and don't make it back.

Undocumented students can't apply for in-state tuition. There is the AB540 legislation that would allow these students to pay in-state tuition, but it's taking a long time to implement.

They also want to replace the remedial classes with online classes, even though the success rate of current remedial classes is 70 percent, whereas online, it's only 40 percent.

WHAT WILL it will take to end the cuts?

MORE KIDS and more pissed-off parents. If all the little fish turned into one big fish, what could stop us?

We need to reach out to parents, alumni, people on financial aid, anyone with little brothers and sisters. As Martin Luther King said in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," we need to go through the process of fact-finding, negotiation, self-reflection and direct action. We're deciding what we are capable of, then contacting people. People need to know why we're doing it.

HOW DO you think we can bring more people into the movement?

I'VE BEEN trying to figure that out for years. What flips a switch and causes someone to become active? You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make them drink. It takes one-on-one discussion, coalition building, remaining focused.

There's a high connection between people being educated and taking part in the movement. People who aren't educated have a lower ability to keep up on the information, and aren't as connected to the higher education community.

AT BERKELEY, there was coordination between faculty, staff and students in the struggle against the cuts. Do you think that is possible at SFSU?

STUDENTS FOR Quality Education will always stand with teachers. We're in the same classrooms. Their livelihood and our education are the same. We can't see them as paternalistic.

It is possible. There are problems organizing between different colleges. The battles are different. For example, students in the University of California system already pay a lot more than students in the state and community systems. The timing is different between the quarter and semester system, when finals and midterms occur.

Also, it's easier to organize in some places like San Francisco, where there's only one state and community college, compared to San Jose, where there are several community colleges. If San Francisco, with its history of resistance, says nothing, what about smaller campuses like Stanislaus and East Bay?

WHAT DO you see as the administration's role in delivering the cuts?

THE ADMINISTRATION has been implementing the model of furloughs and cutting teachers' salaries. They have already cut $500 million ($32 million for SFSU) and are talking about another $500 million cut, which would be catastrophic.

The administration is top-heavy. They're hiring more executives and giving themselves a 12 percent raise while they lay off staff, teachers get receive pay cuts, and classes are cut. And if you go to the administration building, they all have fresh MacBooks and desks--it's like a modern Versailles in there, while we have to fight for desks in our classrooms.

The positive aspect of the cuts is the reaction of students. The occupation was a turning point that allowed students to feel more empowered and expect more.

Robert Corrigan, the SFSU president, says that "everything is on the table"--except his head. He makes over $200,000 a year, plus a car and house. I have never seen him address the students. That's cowardly. He needs to step up and take a stand, and he should be an advocate for faculty and students. He's not representing SFSU.

The head of the board of trustees, Chancellor Charles Reed, makes over $400,000 a year, plus a car and house. The board is all corporate executives chosen by past governors. Why are there no teachers on the board? They're appointed by the governor.

The California Faculty Association and Students for Quality Education supported Jerry Brown for governor since he said he would be more sympathetic and better than Meg Whitman. We did the whole run--flyering, phonebanking and knocking on doors. Now it's our time to call on him.

WHAT DO you think of Jerry Brown's decision to not cut K-12 education?

IT WAS smart politically. But no education funding should be cut. While it's good that K-12 isn't being cut, what do kids do after they graduate? They either have to leave the state, or take on debt. It's tough to graduate. There's a lack of counselors--why do they not hire more?

WHAT WOULD you like the educational system to look like?

WE NEED a public system. The master plan for California was great. It made California's the largest higher education system in the world. It set up a three-tiered system with the community colleges, the CSU state universities and the University of California system.

There were still fees for books, health care and things like IDs, but the top third of graduating high school classes were guaranteed to go to a state college they picked, almost fully funded, with a major they picked. It was more than just about earning a degree--it was ensuring that the students in California had the chance at a better lifestyle in a career of their choice.

My paternal grandparents were immigrants whose first language is Spanish, and both of my parents were the first generation in their families to go to college. My dad is now a neuropsychologist with a PhD from UCLA, but he first went to CSU Northridge. He paid for it by himself, but that's not possible for many people now.

We need state-funded education that's effective. We need our teachers to be respected--they are not doing it for money, but for the love of teaching. We need the freedom for unions to come in and fight, without the threat of retaliation.

We need student input. Why doesn't the president have office hours? Why can't we have input--have him listen to our problems? There is currently Associated Students, Inc., representation in some committees, but they can't always address the needs of all of the students.

Statewide, we need a complete restructuring. We need to say this is a f'd up structure and can't be a successful public education structure.

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