Cuts Stir New Wave Of Student Protests

IT is a student protest right out of the 1960s. There are armbands, buzzwords like ''mobilization,'' plans for bigger and louder marches, and fists shooting into the air.

But while the activism of 30 years ago dealt with Vietnam and the social ills of the day, today's centers on the pocketbook.

Cuts in education funding are bringing students out onto the quads and into the streets from Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. Their pique is both with reductions in student loans and state aid for education, which are leading to higher tuition fees.

Last week, student leaders skipped the chance for a week on the beach during spring break and instead converged on Washington to protest potential cuts and changes in federal assistance.

Although no federal cutbacks have made it on paper, there is talk in Congress about making students pay the interest on their student loans before graduation and possibly eliminating the Department of Education -- though not its programs.

The Washington trip included a protest rally, but students also donned skirts and suits to lobby lawmakers. ''It was more than just a nuisance protest,'' says Jenny Craig, board member of the United States Students Association, a lobbying group.

The students are likely to have their lobbying work cut out for them. The government spends about $61 billion on education (through the Department of Education as well as other agencies, including the space program).

As Congress cuts the budget deficit, ''the students have no claim to be exempted,'' says Chester Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. He calls the potential cuts ''not particularly Draconian.''

On the state level, students are battling as well. This week, Wisconsin students are targeting state legislators who are considering a 3.5 percent cut in state university funding. ''If the university continues to face cuts as the budget goes through the legislature, we will have to step up our efforts,'' says David Stacy, president of the United Council of Wisconsin Student Government Student Associations in Madison.

Students have become particularly vocal in New York State where Republican Gov. George Pataki, in an effort to bridge a budget gap and give a tax cut, has proposed a $290 million cut in state aid to education. On March 27, supporters claim 10,000 students, religious leaders, and union members protested the proposed cuts in Albany.

Student leaders hope to educate Governor Pataki about the state university system. ''He went to Yale. I'm not sure what he knows about the State University and City University systems,'' says Kasim Ali, president of the Student Association of State Universities in Albany.

Although most of the protests have been peaceful so far, last week 14 police and five students were injured when 20,000 students, teachers, and administrators converged on City Hall in New York. On March 24, about 1,000 high school students protested peacefully in the same place.

''[New York Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani is going after the things we need -- our bus passes, electives, and junior varsity teams,'' said protester Ronald Kokulis, a student from the Bronx High School of Science.

This isn't the way Mr. Giuliani sees it. As students marched in the park outside City Hall, Giuliani, clearly annoyed, called the protesters ''ill informed'' at a press conference. For example, the mayor pointed out that he has virtually no control over how the Board of Education spends its money other than to set parameters in the absolute amount of money the board receives. Even in that respect he is limited by state law, which mandates a minimum amount the city must spend.

Giuliani attacked the administrators and teachers for not presenting a balanced view. In the case of the state, he noted, ''the education system should work with the governor instead of trying to give the false impression that he doesn't like children or he doesn't like education.''

Pataki, for example, has proposed that teachers work 15.5 hours instead of 14.5 hours per week, saving $25 million per year, and that the student-faculty ratio increase by one student per class to save $18 million. Pataki has suggested the state's $2,650 tuition go up by less than $1,000.

University officials maintain that even if they made these changes, they would still have to make painful cuts. ''We can't get any leaner without altering the quality of education,'' says Stephen Curtis, president of Queens College. He predicts a large loss of students if the Pataki funding cuts take place.

According to Christina Harper of the California State Students Association (CSSA), enrollment in California's higher education system is down 40,000 students from 1990 levels. Student fees have risen 103 percent in four years.

This week, California students are holding press conferences and lobbying. Today, at a bake sale to illustrate how much the universities need to raise to maintain fees, the CSSA will sell cookies for $15,000 a piece and brownies for $20,000 per square.

For some students, the budget battles have become part of their education. After lobbying legislators in Albany last week, Queens College senior Jane Callahan has begun urging students to register to vote. ''I tell them if you do nothing else to protest the cuts, register to vote.''

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