About the only encouraging moments during the years-long budget disaster here in California have been the increasing campus radicalization against the draconian cuts to public education. For years now, students have sat on the front lines of the budget debate, with schools an inviting target for budget cutters and back-door taxes in the form of fee increases a preferred solution. The most recent 30% fee hike at the UC university system was something of a last straw. California, once a higher education model for the nation to follow, has seen that sadly pass. And the students want it back.

Yesterday, across all the UC campuses, students protested the cuts and demanded action on coming to grips with both the budget and the political crisis in Sacramento.

Several hundred students, faculty and staff rallied at the University of California at Berkeley, the 1960s hub of Vietnam war protests. Yoga students there held classes outside to avoid crossing picket lines.

A UC Santa Cruz radio broadcast advised the public to avoid that campus after protesters blocked a traffic entrance.

Robert Cruickshank, in a moving post at Calitics, explains this correctly as a reaction to the deliberate destruction of public education in the state. Congressman (and former Lt. Governor) John Garamendi explained it to me several months ago as a “decision, and it was a decision, not to invest in education. We have plenty of money to fund it, but we made the decision not to. The leadership has refused to use that wealth in the greatest resource we have, and that’s our education system.”

This decision to mortgage the future of students because the wealthy don’t want to give up their tax advantages has manifested itself in anger across campus. Cruickshank, who participated in protests in Monterey, explains it as part of a continuum of de-emphasizing education:

Students now understand what is happening to them and why. Their education is being gutted and their already meager financial resources are being stolen from them by a state government that believes corporations matter more than students. That propping up the failed status quo matters more than building California’s future. Most of the speakers I heard understood this very clearly, almost instinctively. It has been beaten into them these last two years.

In my own brief remarks to the rally at CSUMB, I noted that we had all been here before. In the late 1960s students protested against Governor Ronald Reagan’s fee hikes, but they happened anyway. In the early 1980s students protested against Governor Jerry Brown’s and Governor George Deukmejian’s fee hikes, but they happened anyway. In the early 1990s students protested against Governor Pete Wilson’s fee hikes, but they happened anyway. In the early 2000s students protested against Governor Gray Davis’s and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fee hikes, but they happened anyway.

It is time to break that cycle with action.

The core goal for colleges and universities should be to restore the core pledge of the 1960 Master Plan – that a high quality public college education will be free to all Californians who qualify for it. The core goal for K-12 schools should be similar, that a high-quality public education will be free to all Californians, period. In pursuit of that goal, the movement must be willing to pursue actions and policy changes that will provide the new public funding that a restoration of truly affordable and quality public education requires.

There are campaigns at the state and national level to break this cycle. The Courage Campaign, where Cruickshank is a policy director, has joined the effort to finally have California tax the oil coming out of the ground (this is the only state in America without an oil severance tax) and funnel that money into higher education. Another national initiative would be to pass student loan reform, end the mass subsidies going to banks to manage federally-backed loans, take the savings from distributing government loan directly and transfer it into Pell Grants that would allow hundreds of thousands of students to better afford college. “Second Lady” and community college educator Jill Biden argued for that at the White House web site today.

Finally, putting the states on sound fiscal footing after the Great Recession eroded the tax base would help as well. California received, by some counts, $85 billion dollars through a variety of stimulus programs, and yet the budget shortfalls remain, creating a drag on economic recovery. Arnold Schwarzenegger likes to tout the stimulus in Washington while cutting education funding at home, canceling out the stimulative effects. This cannot happen anymore, and while the $25 billion in Medicaid help in the next Senate jobs bill would provide some relief to state budgets, it does not fill what is by some accounts a $140 billion dollar gap.

Overall, students are tired of being considered what amounts to second-class economic citizens, with their futures on the chopping block whenever the economy takes a downward turn. California’s budget problems are byzantine in their complexity, but in a broad sense it comes down to priorities, and students over the last several years have been put in the back of the line. Their willingness to stand up and protest this action is perhaps the one shining by-product of this sad time in the state’s history. Real activism and engagement from the bottom up can save the state, if channeled properly.