The problem with two-tiered tuition, privatization of education and pepper spray

Illustration by Carl Robinette / Daily Sundial

The student rally at Santa Monica College (SMC) started at 6:00 p.m. on April 3 in front of the library, but it was not until 30 students were pepper sprayed that the local news came out to the college itself. But even then, the issue wasn’t the privatization of public school.
It is unfortunate that only when students are injured does our cause become newsworthy, but now that this has gotten the public’s attention, it is important to address the real issue of the privatization of public school. From the food we eat on campus to the books we purchase, the American college student has turned into nothing more than another market for consumer goods.
The SMC board of trustees (BOT) has been making national news by getting coverage of their two-tier tuition system in the New York Times and TIME Magazine. The proposal would simply make required classes more expensive. Making classes more expensive is what passes for a solution for our now in shambles public school system.
The academic industrial complex is looking at two-tiered tuition as the next logical step in the dismantling of an education system that was once about developing an engaged and informed citizenry capable of self-governance.
This was the issue that was on the agenda for SMC’s BOT meeting. The meeting was to be held in a room that seats 30 people, even though this was clearly an important issue that would affect every single one of the 35,000 students at SMC, as well as the other 111 colleges in the California Community College System, and therefore would have a nationwide impact on education. So when over a hundred students from around Southern California descended upon the meeting chanting, “Let us in!” – it turned more than rowdy.
As one of the students at the front of the crowd tried to get into the meeting, the police started to use pepper spray. Was pepper spraying students trying to get into a public meeting really the best possible solution?
Students with permission to speak were given numbers and only about 17 students were going to be permitted into the meeting. The police officers unfortunate enough to be on duty were allowing students with numbers to enter one at a time when a few students without cards tried to enter. It escalated quickly and turned into something less-than-violent as students were struggling to get into the meeting and officers blocked the entrance with their bodies.

The struggle lasted for minutes, during which I was chiding the officers with comments like “you know you don’t want to do this, just let the students in, you won’t lose your job, this can only end badly.” Unfortunately the confrontation ended with an officer losing his balance and pepper spraying the crowd — which included a 4 year old child.

The incident changed the focus of the situation as students then wanted to march on the police department and the undeniable presence of the police state in all aspects of our lives was being discussed. What seemed to be dozens of fire engines, police cars and ambulances turned the protest newsworthy.

The simple request that students had was for a referendum for the students, staff, faculty and people with a stake at Santa Monica Community College to have a say – a vote on how the institution is run. The fact of the matter is that our representative democracy doesn’t represent the student, the mother, the disabled, the elderly, the artist or the proletariat – it represents materialism, greed and the concentration of power.

This is what capitalism has wreaked onto our society. Just like with rigid dogmatic religion and the two-party binary, any real criticisms of the ideology are marginalized, simplified, and turned into an incoherent sound bite – like the screams of students who were pepper sprayed for trying to attend a public meeting in which their futures were being discussed. The high concept of public education has devolved into nothing more than a tool for the rich to get richer and the poor to stay uneducated.

This is made most apparent in our public schools where we graduate kids from high school that can’t read or do math, let alone think critically, but that is by design; status quo power structures are threatened by an engaged public.

The attention on this issue has led Jack Scott, the Chancellor of the Community College System, to question the legality of the proposed tuition system and forced SMC to reevaluate their neoliberal solution. While we wait for an opinion from Attorney General Kamala Harris, the solution to the problems facing education seem to revolve around getting more state funding for schools. Unfortunately, California is cutting funding to health care, state parks, public transportation and public services and resources across the board, making finding money for education without a tax increase nearly impossible.

However, a tax increase would just give the corrupt and incompetent politicians more money to reward their campaign contributors with. The real solution has to recognize that the very concept of the commons and public space is under attack by private capital and that our representative democracy is critically flawed. It needs to use that information to remove the current class of politicians that prioritize reelection over an educated and informed citizenry.