October 7: Defend Education!

Against the Current, No. 148, September/October 2010

Adam Dylan Hefty

STUDENTS, FACULTY AND campus workers across the United States will kick off the 2010-2011 school year with an October 7 national day of action to defend public education. This day of action will attempt to pick up from where last year’s movement to defend public education left off. March 4 represented the broadest point of last year’s organizing, with strikes, major rallies and marches, and smaller local speak-outs taking place throughout California, across the country, and to some extent around the world.

Student activism frequently falls into a summer lull, and while endorsements for October 7 have been piling up, in many schools and communities organizing and planning is still incipient. Last year, the September 24 walkout across the University of California system came together during September, and we should expect a similar timeline this year.

Some argue that the student movement has been in decline since shortly after March 4. It is certainly true that no overarching structure has been able to bring people together across local areas, sectors, political differences, and organizing styles. In California, at a statewide level trust and joint work have declined since the October 24 conference, with unions, faculty, and different kinds of student activists essentially going their separate ways. Statewide coordinating bodies have been slowed down by sectarian infighting and dogmatic posturing.

Nevertheless, dispersion does not necessarily entail inaction. A large number of activists developed politically and organizationally over the course of the past year; a great many of them remain highly committed to this struggle and engaged in various kinds of local work. This dispersion may also protect a space for creativity which wouldn’t exist if the movement were overly centralized. Part of the “magic” of 2009-10 involved an unfolding and synchronicity of action which was not anticipated even by the organizers. That cannot be reduplicated mechanically; any given tactic tends to lose its capacity to inspire people’s imagination with rote repetition.

We should look beyond recent history to consider what it will take to build a movement both to defend public education and articulate our own vision for a democratic educational system. People who have come of age politically in the United States over the past 20 years have witnessed a succession of movements which emerge and decline rapidly, often with little connection to one another.

One often encounters a related impatience in the movement; people ask, for example, what good is a symbolic action (even if it is large) or even a single occupation if administrators and politicians don’t quickly begin to accede to our demands? We’re not used to seeing movements that continue organizing for years on end; in our guts we’re not completely convinced that sustained collective action can happen.

Powerful social movements in previous generations have had cycles of ebb and flow, sometimes bleeding into one another, over a period of years before their full effect became manifest. This was certainly true of the labor movement of the 1930s and the civil rights, antiwar, student, and feminist movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Could the current student movement potentially develop this kind of longevity?

Building Links

The movement has begun to develop ties with other organizing projects. In the Bay Area, there is an overlap between budget cuts organizing and organizing for justice around the killing of Oscar Grant. Immigration has become more and more politically central nationwide over the past several months, and this will doubtlessly have an effect on campus organizing, particularly as students organize in support of the DREAM act, which would give otherwise undocumented graduates of U.S. high schools greater access to residency.

Last year’s organizing against budget cuts and neoliberal austerity was sometimes inattentive to questions of race and racism, though some momentary, important connections were made — at Berkeley with the hunger strike in protest of Arizona SB 1070, and statewide in protest of racism at UC San Diego and the administration’s inadequate response. More sustained connections with anti-racist struggles could allow the student movement to broaden politically and deepen its connections to the lived realities of many students, workers, and community members, providing contexts for organizing across time.

In California, the student movement has been more successful at changing the debate at the political level than at the school/ administrative level. With elections this fall, there could be more opportunities to embarrass politicians and raise the profile of our collective concerns. However, the election season also brings pitfalls. Union leaders often put movement politics and accountability aside in a bid to elect “labor friendly” candidates.

Both Schwarzenegger and Democratic proposals for this year’s budget preserve public higher education from further cuts, but Schwarzenegger’s initial budgetary proposal completely eliminated CalWorks, California’s welfare-to-work program, which would have a devastating impact on poor families; Schwarzenegger previously proposed to increase higher education funding by partially privatizing prisons. The student movement will need to ally with a broader drive to save public services and fight neoliberalism if we are to avoid the logic of fighting over pieces of a shrinking pie, in which any victory would be pyrrhic.

This situation requires a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, public education cannot be maintained and revitalized without a massive recommitment on the part of local and state governments, which would ultimately require major changes in state-funding mechanisms and rejecting the neoliberal logic of the last 30 years.

 On the other hand, over the short- to medium term, local school districts and university administrations retain a great deal of power to set priorities, and in fact administrators have used the economic/financial crisis as an opportunity to re-shape schools towards privatized ends, faithful to the maxim, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” When activists have challenged these priorities, administrators have been highly successful at shifting the blame to the economy and the state.

Countering this convenient excuse would require a much more focused campaign and media strategy in the coming year. If activists take on those fights, we could start to win some intermediate goals. (Of course, articulating intermediate goals that are worth winning and not about shifting around the burden of austerity may be the largest challenge.)

The NAACP and AFL-CIO-organized National March for Jobs and Justice on October 2 will catalyze organizing around related issues in the eastern half of the country. In Chicago, the reform group CORE was elected to leadership positions in the Chicago Teachers’ Union on a platform emphasizing a fightback against privatization. A conference in Georgia, August 7-8, drew together Southern activists focusing on these concerns. It’s too early to tell what will transpire on October 7, but the conditions that made the student movement a force to be reckoned with last year certainly have not gone away.

ATC 148, September-October 2010