The United States today faces an economic crisis worse than any since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nowhere is it sharper than in the nation’s schools. It’s no wonder that last year saw strikes, student walkouts, and uprisings in states across the country, aimed at priorities that put banks and stockbrokers ahead of children. California was no exception. In fact, other states looked on in horror simply at the size of its budget deficit—at one point more than $34 billion. The quality of the public schools plummeted as class sizes ballooned and resources disappeared in blizzards of pink slips. Fee increases drove tens of thousands from community colleges and university campuses.
But California wasn’t just a victim. Last year it saw a perfect storm of protest in virtually every part of its education system. K-12 teachers built coalitions with parents and students to fight for their jobs and their schools. Students poured out of community colleges and traveled to huge demonstrations at the capitol. Building occupations and strikes rocked the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) campuses. Together, they challenged the way the cost of the state’s economic crisis is being shifted onto education, with a particularly bitter impact on communities of color. Activists questioned everything from the structural barriers to raising new taxes to the skewed budget priorities favoring prisons over schools.
Rise and Fall of the Master Plan
When the current recession hit, California had already fallen from one of the country’s leaders in per-pupil education funding in the 1950s to 49th among the 50 states in the last decade. That fall was more than just a decline in dollars. It was the end of a commitment to its young people that started in 1960, when a wave of populist enthusiasm put liberals in control of the California Legislature and governor’s mansion. Together, they issued a Master Plan for Higher Education that promised every student access to some degree of postsecondary schooling. Community colleges were free, omnipresent, and accepted everyone. UCs had no tuition and charged only nominal “fees” for university services. Strikes led by Third World students and civil rights demonstrations opened the doors wider to people of color and youth of working-class families generally. The state’s reputation as an economic and technological powerhouse owed much to the students who passed through the system in the decades that followed.
By last year, that era wasn’t even a memory for students who have grown up in an age of shrinking expectations. Yet on paper, at least, the promise remained. In urging students and teachers on UC campuses to fight instead of giving up, noted radical sociologist Mike Davis called it an epic challenge. “Equity and justice are endangered at every level of the Master Plan for Education,” he argued. Davis called on his fellow faculty members to look out of their office windows. “Obscene wealth still sprawls across the coastal hills, but flatland inner cities and blue-collar interior valleys face the death of the California dream. Their children—let’s not beat around the bush—are being pushed out of higher education. Their future is being cut off at its knees.”