Education fasters win historic victory

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – After 26 days, the two remaining activists in the “Fast 4 Education,” Cesar Cruz and Israel Haro, ended their fast June 4 after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that will help poor school districts that have taken out major loans. A crowd of supporters enthusiastically greeted the two fasters and Jessica Vasquez, who had ended her fast the day before, as other activists brought them in wheelchairs into the Assembly Press Room at the State Capitol.

“We have forced the governor to really crumble, even though he rarely gives in to protest,” said Cruz. “We thank Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union, for all of the work and teaching that she did to make this happen with the governor and the Legislature.”

The activists started their fast May 10 in front of Oakland City Hall to demand that Proposition 98, passed by the voters in 1988 to guarantee baseline funding levels, be fully funded. The governor reduced Prop. 98 by $2 billion, gutting the budget of school districts throughout the state, according to the group.

Vasquez, who teaches a film class to sixth graders, said the fast was spurred by the deplorable conditions that West Contra Costa County schools are in. “The bathrooms are in bad shape, the ceilings are coming down in the classrooms and the school looks like a prison,” she said. “When I ask the students what they want to be, they often tell me, ‘to be alive,’” Vasquez added. “This is sad – when they should be saying they want to be a doctor, teacher, engineer or other profession.”

The Daucher Bill (AB 2756) will cut the interest rates paid by the West Contra Costa Unified School District and other poor school districts from 5.7 percent to 1.7 percent. This will save $600,000 for the West Contra Costa School District alone, which has been severely affected by state budget cuts while stuck with payments on its remaining $16 million loan. Through the work of Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg’s office, any school district that is in any loan trouble will have their loan payment put off for two years until Prop. 98 funds kick in. This means that none of the libraries in West Contra Costa School District will have to close, as was previously feared.

The governor finally agreed to meet with the fasters after shunning them in Sacramento after their 70-mile march from San Pablo to Sacramento in April. He will meet with them in Richmond in October.

“We are very grateful to the three remaining fasters,” said 14th District State Assemblymember Loni Hancock. “Many of us in the Legislature were worried about the permanent effects of the fast on them. We want to thank you – by your suffering, you put inequality in education on center stage in the state and the Capitol.”

The end of the fast came after Hancock sent the governor a letter signed by 42 legislators urging him to meet with the fasters. In addition, Speaker Fabian Nunez and Assemblymembers Marco Firebaugh, Goldberg and Hancock introduced a resolution urging the governor to refinance the state loan. Legislators were working with Dolores Huerta, who vigorously lobbied the governor’s staff.

“Fifty years after Brown versus the Board of Education, education is still put on the back seat,” said Fred Jackson, a veteran of the desegregation battles in the South in the early 1960s, who broke his fast earlier in the week. “We starved ourselves so our kids could be fed. Our mission was to move education to the moral agenda.”

On the previous day, Tony Gonzalez of the International Indian Treaty Council and American Indian Movement expressed his solidarity with the fasters at a noon rally on the steps of the Capitol. “We need more money for education and less for the prisons.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.