As the global economy stumbles deeper into crisis, baldly revealing the bleak future capitalism has on offer, youth across the globe are moving into open revolt. With unprecedented budget cuts raining down everywhere, the struggle over public education has emerged as the main battleground.
In the last two months of 2009 alone, one website documented 168 significant student protests, mostly in Europe but also in California, New York, and elsewhere.
This spring, students in Puerto Rico occupied and shut down university campuses there for weeks, forcing the government to give concessions. Meanwhile, the South African Student Congress attempted to shut down nine universities demanding free education.
The movement in the U.S. reached its high point (so far) on March 4, when students and education workers in over 33 states organized hundreds of protests against the budget cuts. In California, where the movement was strongest, picket lines shut down UC Santa Cruz and all the big universities were rocked with significant protests.
Unions of K-12 teachers and campus-based unions endorsed and participated. Some estimate actions took place in a majority of K-12 schools in California, including the afternoon walkout of 5,000 teachers and students in San Francisco. This led into a rally, endorsed by the San Francisco Labor Council, of 20,000 against attacks on education.
March 4 united the student movement with public-sector union activists in the most significant coordinated mass response to the economic crisis that has ravaged the country since 2007. Now momentum is building across the country for a new day of action on October 7.
The Corporate Agenda
Even before the economic crisis, big business on a global scale was pushing an agenda of budget cuts, privatization, and enforced standardization to ensure curriculum corresponds to market needs. But with the onset of the “Great Recession,” the public education system as we know it, from our universities to our K-12 schools, is being systematically dismantled.
$108 billion was cut from state budgets in 2010, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates cuts in 2011 will top $140 billion! Big business is offloading the burden of their crisis on working people by cutting budgets to the bone.
Now the bones of the public education system are also being broken, as a powerful juggernaut of economic and political interests uses the budget crisis as cover to push for a fundamental reorganization of education to serve the profit-driven needs of Corporate America.
In recent months, the most stunning attacks have been raining down on the K-12 system. With “Race to the Top,” Obama’s Department of Education is leading a coordinated assault on public schools and teachers’ unions. Obama has moved so far so fast that even staunch White House allies like the NAACP and the Urban League were forced to publicly denounce his education agenda (see related articles on pg. 10 and pg. 11).
In higher education, the “corporatization” of public schools has gone much further. For big business, the budget crisis is seen as an opportunity. All manner of profiteers are lobbying to snag juicy morsels off the sickly public systems through thinly veiled privatization schemes designed to suck profit out of public tax dollars.
For example, California’s community college system, serving 3 million students, took an 8% budget cut last year, resulting in course section reductions of 5% statewide. In some colleges, up to half of new students trying to enroll in a class were turned away.
Their solution? Outsourcing education to the private, for-profit online Kaplan University. The catch is, students forced to take Kaplan classes to meet graduation requirements will be paying $646 for a three-credit class, compared with $78 at the community colleges!
Kaplan is part of the fast-growing for-profit college industry that sprang up since the deregulation of accreditation rules. But for those who think for-profit education is somehow a lean alternative to publicly funded institutions, think again. Kaplan received 87.7% of its revenue from Federal Student Aid in 2009, collecting a total of about $1.3 billion in federal funds.
Markets vs. Democracy
The profit-driven education reforms go far beyond such overtly parasitical corporate welfare schemes. More significant is the hidden agenda behind the high-profile “strategic planning” processes taking place at most higher education institutions.
The idea that public education should serve the common good, providing equal opportunity to all regardless of our class, race, or gender origins, is under fundamental assault. In its place, the idea that institutional priorities should be guided by the demands of the market already dominates the thinking of most university leaders and the corporate-sponsored politicians who appoint them.
The corporate agenda is to maintain public financing of education, albeit at lower levels, but to place management of education under the direct or effective control of the private sector. Everywhere you look, from the way research priorities are decided to the treatment of faculty and campus workers, the “corporatization” of education is rapidly transforming the very nature of our colleges and universities.
Of course, business interests have always played a role in defining the character of public education; what is unique today is the nakedness and completeness of the corporatizers’ ambitions. University systems that were formed (or transformed) out of the struggles of workers and youth who believed education was a basic right – regardless of income – are increasingly too expensive and exclusive for most young people to access.
Revenue vs. Access
The 2009 California protests were sparked by a 32% tuition hike, and similar attacks on access for working-class youth are taking place across the country. Tuition at the University of Minnesota has gone up 150% in ten years.
Student loan debt doubled between 1991 and 1997, according to loan provider Nellie Mae. Then it doubled again since 2000, according to the Project on Student Debt, now averaging well over $20,000 for four year college students.
Meanwhile, “four-fifths of all undergraduates work in college, one-third of them full-time, while the other two-thirds average twenty-five hours a week,” according to Christopher Newfield, author of Unmaking the Public University.
Like a business, university leaders are in a constant drive to increase revenue, and students are viewed as a primary source of finance rather than participants in developing societal knowledge for the common good. This summer, University of Minnesota students were stunned to learn their governor proposed they be required to take a quarter of their classes online as a cost-saving mechanism. Similar proposals are being floated in other states.
The good news is that students and education workers are fighting back on a global scale. October 7 will be an important flashpoint in the U.S. Movement, and the struggle will undoubtedly continue beyond that.
However, if we are clear about what we are up against, we have to soberly explain that the movement, as yet, is far too small, uncoordinated, and isolated to pose a serious challenge to the corporate agenda. Yet the seeds of a much wider, more powerful movement are already planted.
In California particularly, the most promising feature of the movement last year was the unity in action between students, campus-based unions, K-12 teachers, and youth, and even some wider sections of the labor movement. In New York on March 4, transit workers and high school students held a joint rally to defend the discounted student MetroCards, among other demands. These examples need to be built on.
The struggles of students and education workers, currently at the forefront of the fight to defend the public sector, can act as a spark. But lasting victories will require conscious efforts to build wider coordinated struggles alongside public-sector workers and everyone impacted by the budget cuts.
The starting point is united actions clearly opposing all budget cuts and demanding big business and the rich foot the bill for their crisis. However, it is not enough to simply defend the status quo; our movement must elaborate a vision of society where education is prioritized above war and profits, and where democratic bottom-up control of educational institutions replaces the corporate model.
Socialist Alternative is active in this struggle wherever we have forces. In dialogue with other activists, we will continue to provide reports, analysis, and strategy to take the movement forward. Check socialistalternative.org for updates and a longer version of this article.