Student protesters rally for higher education at state Capitol

Shirin Ghaffary/Staff

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SACRAMENTO — Around 40 UC Berkeley students traveled to Sacramento Monday to join a group of 2,000 protesters demonstrating in the March for Higher Education, a lobbying effort to increase state funding for universities and community colleges.

The peak of the event was a noon rally on the steps of the Capitol building in which representatives from the UC, CSU and community college campuses voiced their demands to legislators. Despite the recent passage of Proposition 30, which prevented midyear tuition hikes, speakers voiced concern over long-term tuition increases, decreasing Pell Grants and newly proposed unit caps.

“I’m here today to make sure the state doesn’t decrease funding for public education,” said ASUC Senator and SQUELCH! presidential candidate Jason Bellet.  “Prop. 30 didn’t solve the problem — in many ways, it’s a Band-Aid for a much larger wound.”

Gov. Jerry Brown’s Prop. 30, which passed in November, stopped a $250 million cut to the UC system by imposing taxes on sales and earnings above $250,000. The education funding received from the proposition is set to expire in 2019.

“Even though I’m about to graduate, funding for public education is still going to impact my younger brother and cousin,” said UC Berkeley senior Hannah Benet, a participant in the rally.

An oil-severance tax proposed by state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, was hailed by protesters as a possible long-term solution to UC system’s financial woes. The bill, SB 241, would place a 9.9 percent oil-severance tax that would raise nearly $2 billion for public education.

The event drew noticeably fewer participants than it has in previous years. During a similar event last March, thousands of students converged on the state Capitol, and around 100 demonstrators participated in a subsequent occupation of the Capitol building, resulting in 72 arrests.

“Honestly, I thought there were going to be a lot more people,” Benet said. “Most of my friends are very anti-protests — they don’t know much about these issues. The fact of the matter is, there is no other way to do this. You have to participate.”

Benet was one of only a few UC Berkeley students on an ASUC-funded bus taking students from the campus to the Capitol. She cited a lack of outreach and the weakening of student activism on campus as reasons that many students were not as active as she hoped.

“There were less people involved than last year, but more people were engaged with the issues.” said External Affairs Vice President Shahryar Abbasi. “Overall, this was a great event. Students were targeting their efforts in constructive conversation with legislators.”

After the rally ended, more than 80 small groups of student leaders met with state legislators in private lobbying sessions. According to Abbasi, delegates from the university were able to speak with legislators including California State Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, who was receptive to Assembly bills increasing Pell Grants as well as establishing more aid for undocumented students.

According to Abbasi and Safeena Mecklai, the ASUC deputy of Vote Coalition, the next step will be to follow up with legislators by rallying students at UC Berkeley to call their representatives.

“It’s unclear how today’s day of action will ultimately impact policy change, but the very fact that they know that we’ll be back on March 4 will keep our legislators accountable to students,” Bellet said.

Shirin Ghaffary is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sheesnaps.