Californians Demand: 'Educate the State'

New America Media, News Report , Seth Sandronsky Posted: Mar 05, 2010

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--In a day of protests against budget cuts to California’s public schools and higher education system, an estimated 2,000 people rallied at the state Capitol yesterday to call for more affordable and accessible public education in an action organizers called “Educate the State.”

It was one of the largest actions among dozens that occurred around the state. Education protesters gathering to voice their grievances to elected officials were reminiscent of the recent conservative Tea Party protests against government. But these activists were not demanding smaller government or decreased spending. They were calling on government to spend more money on the public educational system—even if it means more taxes, which is anathema to the Tea Party movement.

Indeed, Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, who addressed the Capitol crowd, is backing a bill, AB 656, that would raise education funds through a new tax. It would impose a 12.5 percent tax on California natural gas and oil producers, directing roughly $2 billion to the state’s universities and community colleges annually.

According to Torrico, California is the only major oil-producing state that lacks a natural gas and oil severance tax, “giving the energy away for free,” he said, noting that Texas, the state with the biggest gross domestic product nationally after California, imposes such an extraction tax on energy companies.

If AB 656 goes down to defeat, Torrico said he would try to qualify it as a ballot initiative. Of the protestors, he said, “I think it is more of a democratic movement of people who expect better public services from the state of California.”

Public-sector labor unions sponsoring AB 656 include the California Faculty Association, California Teachers Association and Service Employees International Union. For AB 656 to become a state law, a two-thirds supermajority of California lawmakers would have to pass it, as the state constitution requires.

That two-thirds rule, which was enacted with Proposition 13 in 1978, is at the heart of the state’s budget problems, said George Lakoff, linguistics professor at UC Berkeley, who spoke after Torrico at the Capitol rally.

Lakoff is also the author of The California Democracy Act, a non-partisan constitutional amendment. He seeks to insert the following 14 words to change the two-thirds rule: "All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote." To qualify this proposed amendment for the November 2010 ballot, 700,000 qualified voters must sign petitions for submission to county elections officials by early April.

However, Democratic Party leadership has not embraced Lakoff’s proposed amendment. This is a major impediment to his initiative being on the November ballot.

State education spending cuts would have been deeper if not for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Barack Obama signed last year. According to federal government statistics, the ARRA since then restored 9 percent of K-12 education funding in California.

Still, K-12 spending cuts of $18 billion in the past two years have forced local districts, which rely on state aid, to fire and furlough employees. Local districts up and down the state are now sending pink slip notices to teachers and staff. With a $20 billion state budget deficit now, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing education cuts of $2.5 billion, although he is promising to protect California’s public school students.

Meanwhile, education advocates are following Thursday’s protests with a "March for California’s Future," which begins today. Public workers will start their journey on foot from Bakersfield in the Central Valley and plan to arrive at the state Capitol on April 21. The California Federation of Teachers, which represents 120,000 teachers and support personnel from early childhood through the University of California system, is a sponsor of the 250-mile trek.


Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Reach him at:ssandronsky@yahoo.com


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