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Why we protest education cuts

By Doug Singsen, Special to CNN
  • Protests denouncing education cuts are being held nationwide today
  • Many angry at drop in education support amid intense global competition, he says
  • In context of bank bailouts, war funding, cuts show lack of commitment, he says
  • Singen: People must keep up pressure to address attacks on education

Editor's note: Doug Singsen is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at CUNY Graduate Center and a co-founder of the CUNY Campaign to Defend Education. He has been active in organizing the March 4 National Day of Action to Defend Education and is a member of the International Socialist Organization.

New York (CNN) -- Today, in California and other states across the nation, students, teachers, faculty and workers have been protesting, striking, walking out of classes and staging sit-ins and teach-ins. They are protesting budget cuts, tuition hikes, compensation reductions, layoffs and privatizations affecting public K-12 schools and universities.

This afternoon, I'll be heading to Gov. David Paterson's office in Manhattan, where our local protest will be held. We're expecting at least 500 people and are hoping for more.

Why? We believe that actions like these -- across the country -- are necessary to communicate to the politicians overseeing these cuts that we will not stand by while our public education system is being gutted.

The students and faculty protesting are not some group of ivory-tower intellectuals out of touch with the "real world." On the contrary, as the real world presses in on their ability to afford an education in an increasingly competitive global environment, they are extremely aware of the relationship between leaders' decisions and their fates. And they are angry.

The largest attacks on public higher education are taking place in California. Last year, the budgets of the University of California and California State University were cut by $813 million and $564 million respectively, resulting in the elimination of thousands of jobs, furloughs, pay cuts and larger class sizes. Both UC and CSU raised tuition, including a massive 32 percent hike at the University of California.

Video: 'Protesting the bad decisions'
Video: Prof: 'Living like a student'

To protest, students, teachers and workers organized a statewide day of action for today. This, in turn, inspired groups in California and across the country to make March 4 a national "day of action" to defend public education.

While California is facing the largest cuts to education, similar cuts are happening all over the country, making it harder for students to afford college and lowering the quality of the education they receive.

K-12 public schools are also affected. Schools' budgets are being slashed, often on a massive scale, as in the current proposal to cut New York State's education budget by $1 billion.

Meanwhile, the public school system is being privatized through the widespread creation of charter schools, encouraged by President Obama's Race to the Top program, which, among other things, offers states federal funding if they eliminate obstacles to the creation of charter schools.

Although charter schools claim to improve learning outcomes, studies have shown uneven results, even as the schools drain money from public schools. Furthermore, charter schools are almost always non-union, which means their teachers receive can receive lower compensation and have less job security.

The dangers represented by charter schools are increasingly being recognized by experts, as demonstrated by the recent reversal of education expert Diane Ravitch, formerly a leading advocate of charter schools and now a fierce opponent.

It's important that the cuts to public education be seen in their economic and political context. They are a direct result of the housing bubble that was created by the reckless policies of the banking industry and the Federal Reserve, from which the financial industry profited handsomely.

Bankers made a killing on the housing market in the 2000s and then left working people holding the bill when the market crashed, with taxpayer-funded bank bailouts and budget cuts to public services. Wall Street recently handed out its largest total compensation in history, yet unemployment is still sky high. The fact that there has been no attempt to reform the banking industry shows the one-sided nature of Obama's quest for accountability.

There are also the massive ongoing costs of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is more than enough money to cover all the states' budget deficits if the United States were to immediately withdraw all troops from these unpopular wars.

However, rather than making funds available to prevent cuts to education and other social services, Obama has declared an across-the-board freeze on domestic spending -- but not on military spending. Since Obama is either unwilling or unable to do what is needed to prevent the costs of this crisis from falling hardest on students and workers on his own, we have no choice but to take matters into our own hands.

To those who say that protesting does no good, I point to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's January promise to find a way to increase funding for public universities in California, which he has acknowledged is a direct response to the protests there.

Although this is a step in the right direction, we all need to keep the pressure on Schwarzenegger and other politicians to follow through on their promises and to address the attacks on education all across the country, not just in California.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Doug Singsen.