GOAL OF RALLIES, ROAD TRIPS: PREVENT LAYOFFS
04/19/2008 -- San Jose's Overfelt High School students handed out postcards urging the governor, "Please don't kidnap my dreams." The Angry Tired Teachers, a rock band from Hayward, are taking a statewide "Cuts Hurt" bus tour. College students plan to march Monday in Sacramento and Los Angeles.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget would slice roughly $5.6 billion from education - the most severe cut in nearly three decades. After the initial shock, education advocates have mobilized an intense statewide lobbying campaign to fight impending layoffs of teachers, librarians and counselors.
From now until the budget passes, there will be scores of rallies, letters and Sacramento road trips as teachers, parents and students pressure legislators to protect education in the face of the state's projected $8 billion deficit.
These activists have a built-in support network: 28,000 school administrators, more than 300,000 teachers, and 6.3 million students. That's not even counting their parents.
Advocates for parks, prisons and foster care - also on the chopping block - can't match the sheer size and reach of the education lobby.
"Education is a very big industry in California, and they are very well-organized. They know how to work it," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University-Sacramento. "They are well-funded because of union dues, and they hire very sophisticated
onsultants. They know how to take their message to the public for maximum political leverage."
It's unlikely that Sacramento will ultimately make such draconian cuts, said Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators.
Still, local school districts are highlighting worst-case scenarios. Superintendent Bob Nuñez said the East Side Union High School District would have to cut $12 million by laying off 128 employees, including 13 bilingual counselors and all of the district's librarians.
That's led to student rallies, including the one at Overfelt on Wednesday. "We need the library to study," said senior Juan Quiñones, 18. "How can a library function without a librarian?"
The Education Coalition, a statewide group that is orchestrating many of the protests, says it's trying to inform the public about the high stakes.
"Our job is to let them know: Here's what a $5 billion cut to your schools looks like," said Wells, whose group is a key coalition member. The public, he said, "is taking matters into their hands and saying, 'You can't do that.' "
Efforts to fight the budget cuts run the gamut, from letter writing to media-savvy publicity stunts like students in Alameda standing in large garbage bins to show their education is being "thrown away." The California State PTA, which has 1 million members, has organized a "Flunk the Budget, Not Our Children" campaign. Thursday, members will rally at the Capitol, then again at their respective legislators' district offices Friday.
"This is the biggest proposed cut that we've ever seen," said Robin Swanson, a Sacramento political strategist hired as the Education Coalition's spokeswoman. "You don't have to do a lot to get folks engaged."
Facing snowballing protests, Schwarzenegger appears increasingly open to the idea of raising taxes.
"He wants everything on the table," said Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for the governor. "He's willing to deal with lawmakers and talk about all ideas."
This spring's budget battle is the latest round in the ongoing fight between the governor and teachers, who are among his most vocal critics. The acrimony stretches back to 2004, when Schwarzenegger persuaded the Legislature to suspend the minimum guarantee for education - something he's proposing again for next year.
Three years ago, teachers led the successful charge against three Schwarzenegger ballot measures that would have limited teacher tenure, job security and union dues.
Educators plan to win this time, too. However, they don't say how the state should close the budget gap - only that education should be spared.
But it's unlikely that schools, which consume nearly half the state budget, can escape unscathed. Republicans have pledged not to increase taxes, and some GOP votes are essential to meet the Legislature's two-thirds majority required for passing the budget.
If students could craft the state budget, the decisions might be easier.
In Palo Alto, Gunn High School students playing the "2008 California Budget Challenge" game during economics classes last week chose to increase K-12 education by $9 billion.
"If you expand enrollment at state colleges, you will build a highly skilled workforce," said senior Noah Azarin, 18.
Instead, the students slashed child care for poor people. They increased existing taxes and approved new ones on carbon emissions and "services."
Raising taxes is something that Californians need to consider, said state Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, who appeared at an Independence High School rally Friday in San Jose.
"Cutting education funding in Silicon Valley," she said in an interview, "is like cutting the state's economic throat."
IF YOU'RE INTERESTED
Play the California Budget Challenge, put together by the non-profit Next 10, at www.next10.org.