Representatives of Cal Berkeley Democrats and Berkeley College Republicans presented their best cases for reforming education, public pensions and health care within California in “The Great Debate: The Storm to Reform,” which was sponsored by both student political parties.
In the past, debaters have argued over presidential candidates and policy issues at the annual event. This year, the event’s organizers, BCR President Brendan Pinder and Cal Dems political director Simon Rhee, added an open forum after the debate with the hope of sparking bipartisan dialogue and engaging the larger campus community.
“The whole theme of the debate is to bring the two clubs together and help build bridges,” Pinder said before the event, which was held in the Unit 1 all-purpose room.
While fundamental differences remained in each organization’s approach to implementing reform, both sides found commonalities. Regarding education reform, Cal Dems representatives sophomore Disha Banik and senior Mike Drake clashed with BCR representatives freshman Arjun Ghai and sophomore Claire Chiara, a staff member of The Daily Californian, over the relationship between state funding and student performance.
“Funding is the most critical issue in California’s education system,” Banik said. “California has more students than other states, but we don’t focus enough on students. California is 49th in per-pupil spending.”
Chiara countered by arguing for reforming tenure and implementing incentive programs for higher-quality teachers. However, both sides said Proposition 30, a California ballot initiative passed last year that increased taxes and likely prevented midyear tuition hikes for the university, was a step in the right direction, though they disagreed over the proper allocation of its resulting funds.
The debaters next addressed pension reform, agreeing the state should close loopholes in its current policies and stop making risky investments. However, they disagreed over the ultimate utility of public pensions.
“We believe that steps have been taken in the right direction already to close the deficit as far as pensions go,” Drake said, referring to pension caps. “We want to preserve the pension system and ensure that it’s there for the future.”
Ghai, however, argued that public pensions are not sustainable in the long run and instead advocated private retirement plans.
The differences between the clubs were most stark during their discussion of the Affordable Care Act, the federal health care overhaul that was launched in October and seeks to provide coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
“The bill had noble intentions, but it’s masterfully flawed with unintended consequences,” Ghai said, pointing to examples of businesses cutting work hours of employees in order to circumvent coverage. Drake and Banik countered by stating they believed the bill was a necessarily public good and human right, lauding its implementation.
After the debate, Pinder and Rhee took suggestions from the crowd regarding ways to increase bipartisanship on campus. Members of both student political parties rose to offer their opinions, emphasizing understanding and respect.
“I’m a Republican, but a lot of my good friends are Democrats,” said junior Kent Van Donge. “We have debates about policy all the time, but there’s always a mutual respect between us. It’s not about whether you agree with someone or not — it’s about respecting them as a human being.”
Pinder and Rhee said they were excited about the outcome of the event and its high turnout — nearly 130 students attended. In addition, multiple campus organizations, including the Office of the ASUC External Affairs Vice President and the Berkeley Political Review, co-sponsored the event. In the future, Rhee said there were possibilities for other collaborative or co-sponsored events for both organizations.
“What’s really exciting for me is seeing everybody stay after the event to talk and discuss,” Rhee said. “It was great to see people open up and talk about how we can collaborate in the future.”