Thursday, March 04, 2010

Governor supports peaceful student protests

Wyatt Buchanan,Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writers
Thursday, March 4, 2010

On the eve of massive student protests over education funding in California today, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he is glad students are speaking out and that he believed the rallies on college and high school campuses from Eureka to San Diego would remain civil.

"I think I have enough faith in our students ... that they are going to rally and let their voices be heard and do it within the law," the governor told reporters after a meeting with administrators and students from the University of California, California State University and community colleges.

The March 4th Day of Action to Defend Public Education, as the day has been labeled, is an idea hatched last fall on the UC Berkeley campus and has gone national. Across California and in dozens of states, thousands of students, teachers, parents and employees from elementary school to graduate school will hold rallies, marches and teach-ins to draw attention to what they say is the declining quality of the nation's public education system as budgets dry up.

Schwarzenegger told those gathered at the meeting in his office that he is making it a priority to find permanent funding sources for higher education in California, and called upon the Legislature to make changes to the state's budget and tax system to do so.

He also pledged to use any revenues the state collects - beyond what is expected in the budget - to fund Cal Grants, which awards grants - some of up to $9,700 a year - to help middle- and low-income students pay for college. The governor had proposed the wholesale elimination of the program last year, and his budget proposal for next year still calls for some reductions to it.

Steve Dixon, president of the California State Student Association, said he was surprised and pleased by Schwarzenegger's statements about Cal Grants and said he would continue to push the administration to ensure there are no reductions to the program.

Dixon also called on fellow students to engage in "peaceful, legal discourse."

"I understand students are angry. I'm angry over what's happened, but occupying buildings and burning couches and getting arrested will do no good," said Dixon, an economics major at Humboldt State University.

The idea for the mass protests was born in October, when hundreds of students and university employees met at UC Berkeley to figure out how to keep momentum alive from what many considered a hugely successful statewide demonstration a month earlier, on Sept. 24.

That's when some 5,000 students, faculty and workers poured out of classrooms on the UC Berkeley campus to protest faculty furloughs, employee layoffs and a proposed 32 percent fee hike throughout the University of California - on top of a 9.3 percent hike a few months earlier. Other UC campuses also walked out that day, and soon California State University campuses and community colleges were also fired up.

Student protests turned angrier, and occasionally violent in November, when the UC regents approved the fee hike that will take tuition for an undergraduate above $10,000 a year for the first time next fall. Students seized buildings at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and San Francisco State University. Some people vandalized the house of UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau late at night.

Although many education activists say the governor and state lawmakers are the true villains behind public education's woes, most student protests have been aimed squarely and angrily at UC President Mark Yudof and campus chancellors for mismanaging their budgets.

Yudof spokeswoman Lynn Tierney said the protesters are wrong about that.

"Sometimes people need a personal focus for their anger, but I think that's misplaced," Tierney said. "It's a question of disinvestment in higher education."

She said she hopes whatever anger they feel doesn't devolve into violence today.

"We're hoping it will be a calm day - productive," she said. "We hope people will focus on the issues of higher education, and the link between higher education and economic success in the state."

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