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Day of Action highlights larger problems in California schools

I got out of the shower early Thursday morning on March 4 to the sound of hundreds of little voices chanting “Save Our School!” As I pulled out of the driveway, I saw the Emerson Elementary School kids from across the street from my house marching on Lawton Avenue and down 45th Street, kids as young as five that held signs reading “Save my school.” The sight was heartbreaking, and an example of a larger phenomena occurring throughout the state and country.

The Emerson Elementary students, along with thousands of students and educators in 33 states across the country, staged demonstrations in a national day of protest against cuts in public education funding. California alone has seen $17 billion in cuts to its public school system, and may be facing almost $3 billion more.

While the economy’s downward spiral has affected all areas of public finance, public education is facing disproportionate cuts. Education spending accounts for about 40 percent of the state budget, but schools have experienced about 60 percent of the statewide cuts to deal with the economy.

Few would call this a simple problem. The entire country is in the middle of a prolonged and devastating recession. Still, California’s own economic woes began before the nationwide recession and, once the fifth largest economy in the world, our state is now out of money.

Put plain and simply, we are broke. Sacrifices must be made on all fronts, and every decision will probably be contested.

Some believe that teachers and administrators must stop demanding pay increases in order to do their part. But teachers in Oakland are among the lowest paid in the state, and have not received more than a 1.5 percent pay increase in seven years. The Oakland Unified School District has managed to make 65 percent of its budget cuts to the central office, rather than to schools.

Instructors and administrators have faced more than their share of the burden for a long time in public education, and now families are feeling it too. While cutting costs may be necessary in this failing economy, California desperately needs to generate funds for public services, including education. Numerous proposals are being circulated, including taxing large polluting corporations (via the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, set to be implemented in 2012) and using the money for schools.

While some of these ideas may offer a temporary fix, a larger structural problem remains. Higher education costs come mainly from two sources: property taxes and tuition fees.

As California needs a two-thirds vote to raise property taxes due to Proposition 13, the cost is being transferred to students in the form of tuition hikes — 32 percent in the UC and CSU system and major cuts in the community colleges. Community college enrollment in California has fallen by 21,000 students this year due to fee increases.

The Bay Area prides itself on being highly educated and having colleges for every age and income. What will happen to our community if colleges start shutting down, or only allowing in the wealthiest elites?

Like many states, California is depending on federal stimulus money to quell much of its public school woes. But these are one-time grants meant to deal with a crisis, not solve a long-term problem.

As in much of the country, a larger issue is at stake in California. What are our priorities? Where we put our money reflects where we invest our interests, and perhaps it is time to really look at what is important to us as a state and as a nation, and to re-examine legislation that stifles our voting power.

13 years ago, I graduated from a small public school in rural northern California where the students had to purchase their own textbooks. The girls’ bathrooms did not have doors on the stalls and our cracked hallways were lined with asbestos. Numerous measures had been on the ballot for years to increase school funding, but it was not until the area was separated into two distinct towns that the school was able to receive the two-thirds vote needed to increase property taxes.

Proposition 13 is crippling the California school systems. Demanding a two-third vote rather than a simple majority makes it nearly impossible to increase revenue for education. The measure, enacted in 1978, has shifted our priorities from educating future generations to ensuring the economic stability of elites, and it is time to rethink what is important to us. This crisis is an opportunity to reconsider whether California is satisfied ranking number 47 in education and number one in youth incarceration. Where do we want our kids to go, and how much are we willing to sacrifice to get them there?

Sahar Shirazi is a first-year Masters in Public Policy student. She also works at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland.