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A War of Their Own 

Community-college students take complaints of budget cuts to the streets

Thursday, Apr 3 2003
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The downtown rally last Friday looked every inch like a student anti-war protest that has grown more common in the last month — cheers, chants, signs depicting bloody gravestones of the anticipated dead, a culminating march to a nearby government building. Except that this day in Pershing Square the chants were “No more cuts,” the gravestones bore the names of imperiled classes instead of people, and the marched-upon building was a state, not a federal, one. The thousands of Southern California community-college students and staff who gathered to protest Governor Gray Davis’ proposal to slash the state’s higher-education system from the bottom took pains to stay on that message and off the topic of the war in Iraq. But the imagery of doing battle and of being under siege was too obvious to ignore, for more reasons than one. “Now is the time to choose peace over war, books over bombs,” declared Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, one of the event’s many speakers. “It is the time to choose education and enlightenment over ignorance and poverty.”

The subtext of such sentiment is that the community-college system, slated for a $530 million cut for the next fiscal year, has long been the educational safety net for the poor and underskilled, and for people of color — the same demographic many people fear will bear the brunt of casualties abroad and economic hardship at home that a prolonged war will surely bring. Community colleges by mandate are as egalitarian as universities are elite, offering opportunities in trades and academia for anyone of voting age, at little cost — historically a good way for young people who didn’t shine in high school and who come from de-industrialized neighborhoods to avoid the military, which often appears to be the only career track around. This scenario has been particularly true for ethnic minorities and especially for blacks and Latinos.

The nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District, stretching from the Valley to East L.A., has a student body that is over 80 percent minority, and educates four times as manyä African-Americans and three times as many Latinos as all the UC campuses combined (the prestigious and politically connected UC system, by the way, is slated not for cuts but for a 2 percent increase, as is the Cal State University system). But the proposed cuts, along with dramatic fee increases from $11 to $24 a unit, could change all this. Hundreds of instructors are being primed for pink slips, and hundreds more courses and professional programs like nursing are closed or on the chopping block. DeAndre Tucker has been studying plumbing at Los Angeles Trade Tech for only a semester, but the 26-year-old says he realizes already that he can’t afford to stop. “I need to learn a trade,” says Tucker, who used to be a security guard and worked spottily in construction before enrolling at Trade Tech. His friend and fellow student William Baptist, 20, is studying electrical contracting because, he says in a soft voice, “it’s become a family tradition — my sister did it, my brother. I’m trying to keep it going.”

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The rally, billed as the first pro–community college demonstration in Southern California history, was notable for bringing together students from across the geographic and economic divides of South-Central and Glendale, East L.A. and Pasadena, San Pedro and the San Fernando Valley. Concerns about cuts, whether in basic English or in highly specialized business classes, were uniform. “The bottom line is that our education slows down,” says Jurgita Dargyte, a 23-year-old student and Lithuanian native who attends Glendale College. “We had 4,000 students register this semester. There’s a great need.”

Benjamin Torres worries the cuts will hurt the innovative Community Development Technology Center at L.A. Trade Tech, which trains its students in all aspects of community building and was designed in the aftermath of the ’92 riots to reinvigorate inner-city growth. “If they cut the hours of part-time instructors and of the evening program, which they’re already doing, that hurts us,” says Torres, who teaches for the institute. “Many of our students work in the day and come to school at night.” Other, bigger-picture issues worry him as much. “The marginal student at Cal State who drops out or who doesn’t make it normally gets kicked back to us at the community college,” he says. “But now there’s possibly no place for that student to go.”

As specific as the outrage was on Friday, it couldn’t help but feel like a warm-up to the outrage aired at the anti-war rally held on Sunday at the same place. That one was larger and more raucous, and likely drew a segment of the same crowd that had descended on Pershing Square two days earlier: The community-college set, after all, is but one of many subsets of the peace movement that has swiftly become an umbrella for social-justice campaigns that increasingly include public education.

But unlike environmentalists or Free Mumia advocates or preschoolers who could lose federal Head Start moneys, community-college students are at immediate risk — next in line as soldiers or next in the unemployment lines as the latest Catch-22 losers in a job market that has fewer and fewer options for those without viable job experience or degrees. Some things never change. It’s sad but unsurprising that one of the first soldiers to die in Iraq was Jose Gutierrez, who before joining the Marines was a student at Harbor College. The college’s last newsletter described Gutierrez as “a quiet, determined young man who incredibly made his way alone from Guatemala to the United States as a 16-year-old seeking to find a better life in America.” For a while, he had it.

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