Students march across state to save education

ALBANY – What would happen if Gov. George Pataki raised tuition at New York State’s public colleges and universities, cut financial aid programs, gutted opportunity programs, cut the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) budgets and cut community college funding? The answer – tens of thousands of students forced to withdraw from college, subsequent layoffs of faculty and staff, and increased obstacles to access to higher education for New York’s high school students. Some students would have to drop out. Some would never get the opportunity to go.

That was the message thousands of students sent to Pataki and state legislators in a 561-mile relay race across New York state to protest the proposed budget. The “No Tuition Hike” started at Buffalo, at the western end of the state, and Long Island, at the southeastern end of the state, and culminated in Albany, at the steps of the State Capitol building, in a mass rally on March 11 when thousands of students filled the streets to tell the governor “No.”

In western New York, students kicked off the No Tuition Hike simultaneously at Buffalo State College, on Buffalo’s west side, and the University at Buffalo, in Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo. The two groups of students marched in the bitter cold to Erie County Community College’s North Campus, where they met another group of students, to continue the hike to Pembroke, 24 miles away.

At the kick-off rally at Buffalo State College almost 100 students gathered to see the hikers on their way. Speakers from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), the statewide student group organizing the hike, the United University Professions Union (UUP), and other student groups addressed the rally. Jeff Fose, a sophomore, said, “I’m walking to send a message to Albany that I can’t afford to pay more for school.”

Dr. Stephen M. Pendleton, political science professor and president of the UUP local at Buffalo State, wondered why the governor could not see how his budget will affect the lives of students.

At the same time, students in Long Island, surrounded by dozens of supporters, kicked off their leg of the hike. The next day, when the marching students came to New York City, there was a rally of about 2,000 people at City Hall.

“It’s unbelievable. CUNY’s tuition is going up $1,200! Bush wants to spend billions of dollars on a war, but he should give it to us, to CUNY,” said Sarah Rosas, a student at the demonstration.

Pataki’s proposals include raising CUNY and SUNY tuitions by $1,200 while cutting their budgets 12-15 percent. The budget would also cut financial aid programs by one-third and opportunity programs by 50 percent.

Students from across the state joined the hike as it wound through cities, small towns, villages and rural areas. All along the route and across the state, students held activities and rallies in support of the hike. For example, students at Geneseo worked to educate the campus about Pataki’s budget proposal and what can be done to oppose it. Their work culminated in sending students to the No Tuition Hike as it passed through Rochester, Feb. 26, and to the rally in Albany on March 11.

During the hike, students carried a “diploma” to present to the governor upon reaching Albany. It read in part, “We march through snow, sleet, wind, rain and whatever else may come, to say ‘no’ to a tuition hike, ‘no’ to financial aid cuts, ‘no’ to budget cuts and ‘YES’ to education.”

At the closing rally, Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, one of the sponsoring organizations, said that the budget cuts were part of an “agenda not to educate you.” She said the reason for the lack of funds and budget hikes is the tax cuts for the rich that Pataki and the Republicans have pushed on the state. They are making up for that lost money, she said, with things like tuition hikes, which are really taxes on working people.

“Instead of tuition being increased, I think it should be lowered – back to nothing, like it used to be,” State Sen. Tom Duane (D-Manhattan) told the World at the closing rally in Albany.

Gabe Smith can be reached at smitg140@mail.buffalostate.edu and Dan Margolis can be reached at dmargolis@pww.org. Nick Robbins contributed to this article.



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