Friday, March 05, 2010

Marching for education, San Francisco


If you think getting most of us access to some kind of health care is hard ... you haven't yet contemplated how hard it is in this country to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. We say the country wants and needs this -- but doing it ...

Yesterday thousands of students, parents, union members and teachers took to the streets to protest ongoing and upcoming cuts in school and college budgets. Too much news coverage that I have seen focused more on a few photogenic incidents of disruption (and violent police response) than on the complex of problems that evoked the protests.

The idea for protest, also known as March Forth, was hatched at UC Berkeley last fall and has spread to campuses in dozens of states. ...

Thursday's protest was an effort to keep the momentum going. Students set up Web sites and Twitter and Facebook pages. They formed committees to connect with high schools, community colleges, union leaders, teachers and workers. ...

Calm prevailed in San Francisco, where thousands of demonstrators marched from 24th and Mission streets, stopping traffic on blocks of Mission, Market, Van Ness and Grove during a two-hour walk that concluded with a rally in front of City Hall.

Homemade signs carried by marchers in the Mission District pointed to some facets of the public education morass.

At its simplest, the problem of California education is money. A system that once led the nation in investing in its young people has fallen short for decades. Per pupil K-12 spending in California is expected to be the lowest of any state in the nation next year. At the same time the student population is the largest and most racially and linguistically diverse in the country. It's not easy making that work when an older, mostly white electorate seldom has children or even grandchildren in the schools and doesn't want to pay taxes to support education for a bunch of brown strangers. There are layers and layers of structural impediments to the functioning of the California government and education system, but the refusal of those who can most afford it to pay taxes for the general welfare is the crux of the problem and has been since the Tax Revolt of 1978.

Jamming 30 students in a room doesn't make for real education, this mother says. And the educators of California know that very well. So over the last decade, they've managed to cut class size in K-3rd grade to 20, sometimes 25 kids. And that's great. But that required more teachers. Though most teachers in California have good labor unions to represent them, they work very hard in difficult environments with little support for relatively low pay. When class size reduction opened up new jobs, quite a few senior teachers saw an opportunity to move to more affluent districts or schools where working conditions would be easier. That left serious teacher shortages in the most difficult urban schools -- shortages that tended to get filled with inexperienced new teachers, many of whom only lasted a year or two. As the budget crunch comes down, the least experienced teachers are the ones getting lay-off notices. I wasn't surprised to be handed a paper at yesterday's march showing that neighborhood schools in poor southeastern areas of the city were seeing as many as 50 percent of their teachers get pink slips. This won't help. The class size reduction story shows just how interconnected education problems are.

Students aren't stupid. They wonder what it means when the state won't invest in their schooling. Yesterday's marchers were very amiable, considering how they know they are treated.

When they get to the Community College and State University level, it gets worse. According to the SF Chronicle:

California's $20 billion budget gap this year, on top of $60 billion last year, has resulted in soaring tuition at the University of California and California State University. Courses are jammed, and many students can't get in at all. Lecturers have been laid off and employees furloughed. CSU wouldn't let new students enroll at all this semester.

More than 20,000 students will be turned away from community colleges next fall because there won't be enough classes for them, community college Chancellor Jack Scott said.

Non-profit organization try to bridge the gaps left by schools that can't do all that is needed. Mission Graduates -- one local group that tries to enrich education for local youth -- has equipped this young man with a T-shirt that speaks a hope. Will he make it?

She's got a dream -- and sees clouds on the horizon.


Darlene said...

We are slipping into a third world country when our educational system fails. It is really frightening to contemplate.

Sarah Lawton said...

Nice post, wonderful pictures, Jan! That was a delightful march yesterday. I loved the energy of the kids of all ages -- the little ones from all those elementary schools, the energetic middle schoolers from SF Community, Aptos, and James Lick, and the great posters and organized chants from O'Connell and Mission High Schools--and on up to CCSF, SFSU, etc. You are right that the kids know what is up.

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