“Just look at the test scores. Oh, we’re all getting stupider? Maybe it kind of correlates with how we’re all getting poorer.”
David Lopez, who’s studying administration of justice at Modesto Junior College, passionately explains his presence at this year’s March in March. Lopez and close to 1,000 other students from community colleges descended on the state Capitol on March 3 to demand increased education funding, higher faculty diversity and support for multiple pieces of legislation, including the DREAM Act.
Gesturing in the direction of the Capitol, Lopez continues: “It’s sad, but our officials need to be reminded that there are still people out here struggling, trying to get an education. It’s nice for us to have this direct voice to them, for us to say, ‘Don’t forget about us, we’re still out here hurting.’ A lot of these guys have gone to community colleges and they know the value of an education, so where’s the gap? Why is there a gap?”
It appears, however, that the gap is wide. A 2013 report published by the Public Policy Institute of California states that $1.5 billion in higher education funding was cut from the state budget in the fiscal years between 2007 and 2012.
Speaking in his office with a small delegation from Mount San Antonio College, a community college within his 55th Assembly District, Assistant Republican Floor Leader Curt Hagman did not stray far from predictable party lines. “There’s more than one way to get funding. So, don’t be single-dimensional when you come visit us. Everyone comes and says, ‘We want more money.’ But how do you get that? Obviously, you tax it, like we’ve been doing lately, or you could grow the economy as well.
“And I believe education would be much better served if they would partner up with those who make California more competitive. That’ll create more jobs for you when you do get your degrees.”
Lopez disagrees. “It’s kind of a vicious circle, because if you’re uneducated, you can’t get a good job. If you can’t get a good job, there’s just no way to pay for your education.”
Hagman is co-sponsoring a bill that would increase access to concurrent enrollment for high school students who wish to study computer science. The office of state Sen. Anthony Cannella, whose 12th District includes Modesto and surrounding areas, did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite the apparent lack of common ground between students and most officials, unity remained a theme important to the protesters, according to Taeilorae Levell, who attends MJC and is active in student government. “I think it’s just good to see these students united. In my sociology class, our professor always talks about uniting … and I feel like it shows these people that we’re going to go speak to today, bringing all these different walks of life and races all together, that we’re all here and focused on education. … That alone is enough reason for us to be out here.”
“That’s important too, the networking,” Lopez adds. “Because there are people out in this crowd that don’t exactly know why, and that’s fine. Just come, be here. Figure it out when you get here. It’s a good experience to just be around all these students and see all of these people that care about education. … People from all backgrounds, ethnicities – that’s just awesome to me.”
The march began at Raley Field and crossed the Tower Bridge before traversing several blocks of downtown Sacramento and arriving at the Capitol. Police presence was heavy but respectful and nonconfrontational as the students waved signs and chanted slogans.
Some signs invoked support for the California Fair Resources and Reinvestment Act, which would tax oil companies to create educational funding; some asked for solidarity with teachers unions, while others lobbied for more options in ethnic studies. The desires expressed were as diverse as the students present, but the focus was clear: creating a meaningful dialogue on the state of our failing higher education system.
The atmosphere remained cordial and constructive during the march, which was followed by a series of speakers on the Capitol lawn. After listening to speeches from members of student governments representing various campuses, as well as State Assemblymen Rocky Chavez and Paul Fong, the marchers went inside the Capitol itself to lobby members of the Legislature. Some student associations had made appointments with their district representatives, while others simply went door-to-door, trying to get an audience with their elected officials.
“I think events like this are necessary because in a college setting, not a lot of students are involved.” Levell says, holding a sign reading “Pro vs. Con: Progress vs. Congress?” above her head. “I came out here again because it’s serious. Yeah, it’s rainy and it’s cold, but I understand that not all of our students at MJC could come, so I am one of the voices of the 26,000 students on campus, to be able to rally, protest, for what their rights are.
“And to get things answered – that’s why I’m out here. Where’s the money going, how can we get more money to education? Those are the things I want answered. And I know those won’t be answered today. … As long as we get something, I think I’d be satisfied with anything. Even if it’s something we don’t want to hear.”
Zachary Senn is a home-schooled senior and a member of The Bee’s Teens in the Newsroom program.