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In the midst of a local contract dispute, some Oakland teachers, students turn to Sacramento

By Katy Murphy
Thursday, May 6th, 2010 at 3:25 pm in budget, high schools, state news, students.

About 40 Oakland parents, teachers and staff will ride their bikes to the state capitol on Saturday – in part, to call attention to the declining support for public education in California. Michael Barglow’s history class at Skyline also headed to Sacramento this week. His brother, Raymond Barglow, tells us how it went. -Katy

It’s one thing for California high school students to read or hear a lecture about how government works. It is quite another for them to experience this in person.

Shortly after 8 a.m. on May 4, a group of 45 students in Michael Barglow’s history class at Skyline High School boarded a charter bus headed for the state capitol.

boarding the bus to Sacramento

Michael’s students had been preparing during the past week to meet with East Bay political representatives: Assemblymembers Sandre Swanson, Nancy Skinner, and Senator Loni Hancock.

The students, accompanied by several adults and student volunteers from UC Berkeley, arrived at the Capitol Building in downtown Sacramento, ready to present some challenging questions to their representatives.

First on the agenda was a discussion with Swanson. The students packed into his office and were greeted first by Swanson’s aide and then by the assemblyman himself.

Swanson said he strongly favors more funding for public education, and that he opposes the rule that requires a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to pass a budget or to raise property taxes. In fact, Swanson was one of three Democrats whose committee chairmanships were taken away from them by party leadership following their votes against state spending caps and cutbacks.

One student asked Assemblyman Swanson about a possible relationship between the state’s financial crisis and federal priorities, including the expenditure of nearly a trillion dollars on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Swanson acknowledged that the state is dependent on funding from the federal government but declined to take a position against the two wars.

The next visit was to Skinner’s office, where she not only listened to the students but also asked them about their knowledge of state government and challenged some of their figures about the state of education in California. She too, though, applauded their interest in government.

Nancy Skinner with the students

Skinner discussed some of the difficulties she faces in defending public education, given the current power of conservative politicians to veto education-enabling legislation.

The final visit was with Hancock, who spoke to the students inside the state senate chambers.

Loni Hancock

She said that it is so important that students take an interest in the education they are getting and that they try to improve that education by getting involved in government. She pointed out that many of her colleagues do not prioritize public services in California such as education and transportation. She noted that many Californians aren’t even aware of how much they depend on these services.

Hancock asked the students: “How many of you think that BART is public?” and “How many of you think that BART is private.” In this informal poll, “private” received as many votes as “public,” indicating that students share in a common misconception.

At the end of the day, some of the students expressed their appreciation for the welcome they received. But not all were satisfied with the responses to their questions. Donnie Jones said although going to Sacramento was a valuable educational experience, the representatives “might not be doing what they need to do” to serve their constituents. Kenny Ward agreed, and said that the representatives “did not quite answer the questions.” Madonna Lee also found the answers evasive. Jacob Froneberger, an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley who helps out in the classroom, said that the controversy about the two-thirds rule for passing legislation is “something of a red herring,” since “a majority of the legislature has voted consistently to lower corporate taxes, which causes the lack of adequate revenue.”

Swanson, Skinner, and Hancock, who are among the most progressive legislators in state government, didn’t shield the students from the difficulties they face in protecting public education and other public services. And for many of the students, the prospect of really bettering their lives through their own participation in electoral politics is far from clear. In class, they’ve been learning how government works in theory. But in practice, they’re learning that it’s an ongoing struggle to have government serve the people.

On the whole, the students were quite enthusiastic about their trip to the state capitol, and grateful to the three representatives for taking the time to meet with them. Some of the students said that now for the first time they really understand how state government works, and how challenging it is for politicians to govern well.

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  • Sue

    That is a wonderful education opportunity!

    Reminds me of meeting my representative in the State Assembly when I was 15 – it definitely fueled my life-long interest in government and politics.

    By the way, that first-term Assemblyman I met in 1975, was Congressman John Garamendi.