A new California tax revolt

Pub date September 22, 2009
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION Don’t miss the struggle underway over the future of the University of California.

Some see it as just another chapter in the unfolding story of the state’s economic decline. That’s partly true. But what’s really interesting is what it could become.

If it’s played right, the showdown over university fees and salaries could inspire a revival of sorts of the California tax revolt. Except this time, the rebels wouldn’t be tax-haters, like we saw in 1978 with Prop. 13. This time, the protests would be coming from parents and future parents of UC kids, and future employers of UC graduates. They’d be protesting, alongside UC students and employees, the ever-steeper fee hikes — essentially an education tax — that threaten to make our public universities cost as much as any private school.

This pro-tax movement would force a rewrite of state law, arguing that higher education is a public good so important that property-owners and corporations are morally and economically obliged to chip in.

You already know the back story. The state and global financial crises have pushed the UC system into intense contraction, compounding years of rising student costs. Top UC administrators receive bonuses while issuing pay cuts, layoffs, mandatory furloughs, and sharply increasing student fees (undergraduate costs are rising by $2,500, to more than $10,000 next year, with more hikes likely soon).

Many people believe the fee hikes are inevitable. Is it true? Or have we been merely well-trained by the Thatcherian promise that there’s no alternative to a shrinking public sphere? In fact, the administration’s budget claims are impossible to verify because much of the university budget is, literally, a state secret.

What’s clear is that the UC system is less and less accessible to everyday Californians, who are already languishing in a flailing public school system. Meanwhile, the state’s economy depends heavily on UC graduates, who are both innovators and laborers in every economic sphere.

We know how we got here. Prop. 13’s budget-starving effects have intersected effectively with the prevailing inclination to privatize just about everything. The global financial crisis — and California’s particularly harsh variation of it — created the opening for long-imagined cuts across the board.

But the latest budget moves have jolted faculty and students awake. Bit by bit undergraduates, who are typically fairly mono-focused on their grades and individual futures, are paying attention. Graduate students from departments as diverse as English and chemistry are convincing colleagues to drop their dissertations (momentarily) to organize demonstrations.

If you know anything about academic life these days, in an age of constant budget cuts, economic restructuring, and individualistic competition, then you know how unusual this is. Widespread political mobilization on campus is rare. But on Thursday, Sept. 24, faculty are staging a systemwide walkout from classes. That same day, rallies, marches, direct action, and union pickets are planned in what could be the beginning of a season of protest on all ten campuses.

Let’s be real. In isolation these protests will simply be a marker on the steep downhill slide of our educational system.

But with broad and consistent community support, the campus insurrection could merge with tax-reform efforts already underway to form a California pro-tax revolt, a movement for property tax and budget reform to reverse Prop. 13’s ill effects. Pro-taxers could harness campus activism, arguing — perhaps even for the sake of the economy — to save public education in California. *

Rachel Brahinsky is a PhD candidate in the geography department at UC Berkeley. For more information, visit www.gradstudentstoppage.com/news-and-events.