FIGHTBACK TCNJ

We all know, cuts abound: money continues to be surreptitiously funneled away from public education reserves, putting desperate strain on K-12 school districts throughout the state, as well as on our own college. So where has all the aid gone? Yes, everything is being cut – ostensibly because New Jersey is trying to close an $11 billion budget deficit.

Troublesome economic times call for more careful prioritization of public funds, not aimless dismantling of any conceivable program. Education – an indispensable investment in the future – should be the last stock from which to divest.

In this spirit, a coalition of students, faculty, union leaders, college staff, and parents have joined to form FIGHT BACK TCNJ, an advocacy group aiming to build a democratic, grassroots, activist movement in defense of public education and in opposition to Governor Chris Christie’s budget cuts. Awareness, discussion and support is mediated largely through its interactive web site, FIGHTBACKTCNJ.org.

Their first major initiative was a “teach-in” on April 21, an educational event intended to increase awareness of ongoing class-oriented struggles that have culminated in Gov. Christie’s unprecedented withdrawal of state education funding.

Why care? To assume that everything will be accounted for would be naïve; to assume we can have no impact on the policy-making process is only more so. Having money is the only way to make our values correspond with concrete services and activities – whether we like or not, money is the privilege to do things.

Many of the College’s programs will inevitably have to go, and student groups face a voting process to determine what TCNJ can afford to keep. This may not be the worst of all consequences,and college students may not feel the full force of the financial burden now, but the old strategy of divide and conquer is at work.

The reality is that this burden is merely being paddled back and forth; right now high schools face the deepest cuts, but in years past higher education bore the brunt of the burden. Rather than disregard the severity and relevance of current cuts for K-12 schools and playing into the government’s stratagem, it is imperative that New Jerseyans unite to defend public education. A strong showing of elementary and secondary education majors attended the sessions, but they should not be the only ones to care about the welfare of the future. April 21 was an all-day kickoff of five sessions and an evening plenary designed to understand current budget woes within the context of a broader social narrative.

First session speaker, Trina Scordo, introduced us to the theoretical and historical basis for the existence of unions. I’ll admit I never allotted much thought to or care for unions. As far as I was concerned, they simply exist; you join a profession, you join the corresponding union – standard operating procedure. However, many people are rightfully suspicious of unions. Scordo addressed this distrust and how it came about when the bargaining process was formalized. In stuffing the working class into suits and setting them opposite the table from business officials, the working class should expect the unfortunate results – no concessions from higher-ups. Once union representatives enmesh themselves too deeply in the process, they become removed from the constituents they are supposed to represent.

But she asked us instead why, rather than being angry at government employees who receive good benefits and pensions, as Christie is encouraging the public to do, we don’t make demands and work for ourselves: for better education and better benefits? A striking point, she made. Truth is, we are tentative to make demands; the concept of “to each his due” comes under fire. What one deserves by right (as opposed to what one is entitled to by merit) conflicts with the individualism and capitalist ethic, which America holds by the claws. It is not something I could easily let go, but working from an agreed rather than decreed baseline is an attractive idea.

Students have the right to demand the highest quality teachers and professors; however, it is difficult to reform a system that does not take student complaints seriously. The session revealed the relevance of unions and how students can harness their voices. The process of how we are allowed to make change says just as much, if not more, about how much leverage we really have.

One of the second session pairs was a throwback to the 1960s: lessons from movements. One student brought up the hippie culture associated with the activism of which we tend to think – what came first, the culture or the reform? Second opinions emerged from faculty as to which historical organizations best represent the current situation and if they failed, how and why. Here’s an easy SparkNotes version: activism spreads when people who care about one issue are apt to see the struggles of another group. Every issue relates in some way to nearly every other issue, and the synergy created by individuals and groups working collaboratively makes for substantial accomplishments on all fronts. No lecture attendance necessary.

Students don’t have the power to shut anything down in order to prove a point, but they have always been the passion behind a tired work force that can do so. Even there we may be proving them wrong with recent high school walkouts – hello, empowerment.

Reactions are proof; Michael Drewniak, Gov. Christie’s press secretary, hoped to dismiss the walkouts as “motivated by youthful rebellion or spring fever – and not by encouragement from any one-sided view of the current budget crisis in New Jersey,” and said students “belong in the classroom.”

Governor Chris Christie was no more pleased: “The schools did a lousy job in really permitting…students to walk out in the middle of the school day. Their parents send them there not to protest.; they send them there to learn. And I have no problem with students protesting. They have absolutely every right to exercise their first amendment rights. But they should exercise their first amendment rights either before school or right after school.”

Drewniak wasn’t wrong, and said himself, “Students would be better served if they were given a full, impartial understanding of the problems that got us here in the first place.” Why are the details of the budget cuts, then, not more public than they are?

Gov. Christie has a point, students are sent to school to learn; but what drove scores of high school students to walk out on their classes? One might consider that they saw walkouts during the school day as more effective than before or after-school rallies. Regardless, having to demand an explanation for the budget cuts is as good as hiding it, and protesting in such a manner casts doubt on the willingness of school systems to listen.

Drewniak seemed to suspect students were motivated by a biased, narrow-minded understanding, and it feels that students have somehow been pitted against the rest of the state. Yet the 15 sheer scope of the budget crisis should be regarded as the real problem.

The remaining attendees gathered in the Social Science Atrium after dinner for a small but powerful rally cry to close the divide between students, faculty, and legislators. Nearing the end of the night, senior Matt Hoke made an interesting point: colleges and other institutions churn students out to replace the infrastructure of the country as we know it.

We as students are both customers and products of schools; then why are we paying so much money – money we have no power over – if the stability of the work world depends on us equally as we do on it?

The origin of unions may not appear relevant, yet as one of the last session speakers, Nagesh Rao, said, “You can’t take a snapshot of how things are today without looking at where things are and how they got there.” We may just be in the same predicament as those workers today. It may not be a comfortable thought, but there is a lesson to be learned: stagnant apathy is no way to work toward a better status quo.

I noticed during this finale, a few onlookers leaning over the second floor balcony with cool removal, crossed feet and suited, presumably for another event. I became aware of the disconnect, and it took me out of the teach-in’s warm enclave. I am sure that they only heard something about unions and students among the echoes of shouts. I am not even sure if the thought that the ensuing noise pertained to them, had even crossed their minds. Whatever your views, watch your allocation of funds, and you may be able to return to business as usual.

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