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How Can Protest Be Grassroots and Also Organized?

March 4th's National Day of Action is hitting more than a few roadblocks. California was once considered one of the...

March 4th's National Day of Action is hitting more than a few roadblocks.

California was once considered one of the preeminent states in the union for the quality of its public education. But ever since 1978, when voters passed Proposition 13 and limited property tax growth, state revenues for education have been on the decline.

Flash forward a decade when, in an attempt to stem the bleeding of public funds, California voters enacted Proposition 98, which earmarked 40 percent of the state budget for K-14 education.

But ever since the recent downturn, California education has again been hit hard. Oakland, for example, has seen the budget for its 141 city schools has been slashed-by $70 million this year and $39 million next year.

The discrepancy comes not from defaulting on Proposition 98, which Governor Schwarzenegger said he is committed to honoring, but from a negative cost of living adjustment which means that Oakland, like many cities, receives less money per student. Add to that declining enrollment, and the per student cuts are even deadlier.

Higher education spending was cut by $2.8 billion in 2009 and after massive protests at campuses across the state last December, a call was issued for March 4 to be declared a National Day of Action in Defense of Public Education. Two groups-the California Coordinating Committee and a group that remains nameless, even on its own website -issued similar calls to action within days of each other.

The idea is to create a show of force in Sacramento and across the state with representatives from all levels of the public education establishment to decry the new cuts and ask that Sacramento change its spending priorities.

But at this point, exactly what the protest will come to look like on March 4 is really anyone's guess.

Neither of the groups that called for the Day of Action is planning to run the March 4 events, both are simply encouraging local groups to create their own events. The California Coordinating Committee's statement, for example, proclaims "all schools, unions and organizations are free to choose their specific demands and tactics-such as strikes, rallies, walkouts, occupations, sit-ins, teach-ins, etc.-as well as the duration of such actions."

One member of the California Coordinating Committee, Jennie Lu, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, explained their approach: "We are trying to fight authoritarianism, so it would be hypocritical to dictate what others should do. The whole point of the movement is so things can be organic and local and cater to the needs of the community. It's very grassroots."

So far, this has led to a broad array of plans and a general lack of cohesiveness between groups. Plans found online vary dramatically, from a two-hour walk-out at California State University at Long Beach, to a seven-week, 250-mile march by a "core group including representatives of unions and other community allies" from Bakersfield to Sacramento planned by the California Federation of Teachers.

So far, Oakland is on board for the Day of Action but has yet to figure out what form its protest will take.

At a recent board meeting, a teacher proposed a walk-out, where his high school students, during the school day, would walk down Telegraph Avenue to join the protesters on UC Berkeley's campus. Yet another teacher suggested busing all of Oakland's 39,000 students to Sacramento for the rally at the capitol.

Superintendent Tony Smith strongly opposed both of these plans. While he is resolute that Oakland participate in the Day of Action, he added: "Sanctioning young people and staff to be out of school is not somewhere I am prepared to go." Instead, he proposed an after-school rally and an in-school event that would function not only as a protest, but also as a learning experience.

And so, though the Oakland Unified School District, together with countless student groups, unions and elected bodies across the state are unified around the idea that there needs to be better public funding for schools in California, how to get from here to there still remains unclear.

March 4 has the potential to be a day when students' voices are heard, showing not only the officials in Sacramento but people from around the country just how much is at stake as public education becomes less of a priority in California. But without a coordinated and cohesive plan, the growing coalition risks making a lot of discordant noise-and not much else.

Any creative ideas for how students might protest?

Lillian Mongeau is a Teach For America alumna who taught seventh grade English on the Texas-Mexico border. She is now a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, where she reports on education in Oakland. For more on Oakland's latest school board meeting, go to:

Poster (cc) via Flickr user Nick Bygon.

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