'Day of action' highlights education woes

In California and across the US, students and faculty protested tuition hikes and cuts to education funding in a national 'day of action.'

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Students and supporters rallied against funding cuts to higher education at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on Thursday.

The national day of action student rallies that began in California and have spread nationwide to protest cuts in education used whatever means possible Thursday – from strikes to sit-ins.

But one fact remains: "The real problem is that the state is broke. No amount of demonstrating will change that fact,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield Minnesota.

What the demonstrations can do is raise consciousness and perhaps begin to pressure cash-strapped states into thinking innovatingly about funding higher education.

“It’s yet another reality check,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. “I'm not sure if the protests will be effective, but they likely will garner some media attention, and for that reason will accomplish at least some goals.”

The crisis is giving voice to those who say drastic reform is needed.

California needs to rethink the way it administers higher education, says William G. Tierney, Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California.

“Do we really need nine research universities?” he asks. “The student’s education should come first.” He says the four-year college degree could be consolidated into three, and that more administrative savvy is needed to make sure classes are available for the thousands of students who have had to stay in school for five and even six years because they can’t get the classes they need to graduate. And he says the online education world needs to be explored since it has made so much progress over the past ten years.

Part of any future success means changing the structure of California universities, says Mr. Tierney.

The California College Democrats (CCD) sponsored a rally at the Sacramento Capitol building Thursday. CCD president Ian Magruder says some protests turned violent elsewhere, but the vast majority remained peaceful and focused on solutions. His group's demonstration featured Berkeley professor George Lakoff, who is sponsoring an initiative called the “California Democracy Act” which would eliminate the state’s two-thirds requirement to get a budget passed – the reason many analysts say California is fiscally straitjacketed.

“What’s at stake is the economic prosperity of the state for years to come,” says Mr. Magruder. "Silicon Valley exists in California because we have human capital here. If we want to continue to be leaders, globally, we have to invest in our people."

California's 1960s master plan for higher education gave it its three-tier higher education system: "UC" for the top eighth of graduating high schoolers, CSU for the top 33 percent, and California Community Colleges for any student capable of benefiting from instruction. It is that antiquated system – and not just the current budgetary mess – that needs fixing, Tierney says.

“Even if California’s budget problems were over today, we still cannot go back to business as usual here," he says. "We have a 20th century education system in the 21st century."

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