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Students Hold Fate in Their Own Hands

Over the past week or so, there has been renewed attention to the ways in which Pennsylvania students — students in PASSHE and the state-related universities (Temple, Lincoln, Pitt, and Penn State) — have mobilized against Gov. Corbett’s cuts.  In my conversations with some of the student organizers at KU and across the state, it is encouraging to hear that students are beginning to get a very real sense of their own power and ability to enact change.  At a recent faculty organizing meeting and in numerous conversations, I have made the case that Corbett’s cuts represent a decisive moment in the history and future of public education in PA — K-12 and higher education.  In the case of higher education, the ability to roll back Corbett’s cuts depends a great deal on whether or not students will mobilize.

It is true that students have already mobilized.  However, there are nagging questions as to whether or not students will be able to expand their current organizing and show up at local and state-wide rallies in numbers that will give state legislators, PASSHE officials, and the Governor pause.  It is also true that students have been contacting legislators and are increasing their presence in Harrisburg as part of lobbying days.  And yet that nagging question that Rick Smith asked me on his show last week still hangs above us all (my apologies for the rough transcription – a good reason why you should listen to his show and listen to my interview at the link above):

ME: What we’ve got is a State System of Higher Education which is really like the last promises to the citizens of Pennsylvania that they’ve got a shot . . . This is like a last stand in my mind.  What they’re after is a fundamental change in the “common” part of our Commonwealth.

Rick Smith: I absolutely agree with you…but…it says you had a hundred fifty – two-hundred people out there today.  I’m curious why you didn’t have a couple of thousand and why across the state…when are we going to see this?  Because this affects everyone of those kids right now and the high school seniors that are coming up and the families…this is a massive, 54% cut.  54%!

There is just no getting around this question.  Why indeed were there not thousands of students out that first day?  Why on the APSCUF led protests around the state this past Tuesday, were there not thousands of students protesting on each and every campus?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go back on the spirit of my last post to “keep laments for better days.”  I am not lamenting.  As a matter of fact, I feel more politically energized now than I have been in a couple of years.  The work that students at KU and around the state are doing to get the word out, to organize buses to Harrisburg for the 11:30 am rally on Monday, March 28th on the Capitol steps  is incredible.  The speeches students gave at the St. Patrick’s Day rally at KU were powerful and moving.  My point is, rather, that I worry that the majority of students, their families, and the citizens of PA don’t yet get how serious the current situation is.  I worry that by the time the seriousness of Corbett’s cuts hits, it will be too late.  And, frankly, I think it will much more difficult to reinstate funds to public education once they are eliminated.  Corbett and his new breed of slash and burn politicians, are playing for keeps folks.

The cold truth of the matter is that administrators, politicians, and cable news talking heads have made a sport of attacking teachers and professors for their personal gain.  They have been successful in convincing a vocal segment of citizens that teachers and faculty are the problem, are lazy, or just that “we” have it better off than “they” do.  And, when it comes to higher education, there are only about 6,000 faculty members and coaches in PASSHE.  There are over 120,000 students.  When you take into account students attending state-related universities you are talking about a group of people who can effectively shift an entire election — very much in the way students in PA did during the 2008 election.  The fact is, “they” — politicians, state administrators, self-interested slash and burn talking heads, and even Gov. Corbett, are afraid of a mobilized student body.

If you think I’m overstating the case, you need to check out the returned-from-the-dead Voter ID bill (or as the Montgomery County-based Election Reform Network calls it, “zombie legislation”) just reintroduced by PA State Representative, Daryl Metcalfe, 12th leg. district, Butler Co).  Voter ID sounds good, right?  I mean, everyone should have to show a picture ID when then vote to make sure that there is no fraud, right?  Well, that law is already on the books.  Here’s a brief analysis by the Election Reform Network:

Photo ID is a solution in search of a problem.  What will it solve?  Not voter fraud since there’s no evidence that there is any.  In fact, we already have a range of sensible safeguards on the books.  Every first-time voter in a Pennsylvania precinct has to show ID.  Thereafter, s/he must be listed in the District Register/poll book in order to vote by regular ballot.  An example of the voter’s signature is kept on record and compared to the new one every time the voter signs in on election day.  Just in case anyone has the bright idea to bypass legal requirements by impersonating someone else in a federal election, they’ll face five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000, on top of state penalties.  With all of the election reforms we truly need, does this sound like an area of the law that needs attention?

So, why the need for a new law?  Sure, you can jump aboard the Daryl Metcalfe fear express and buy into his stated purpose for introducing the bill: to “ protect against corrupt politicians, groups and individuals who might attempt to undermine our elections through the old-time, “vote early, vote often or from beyond the grave’ or more recent ‘get out the illegal alien/non-United States citizens voting programs subject to the rule of law.’”  Or, you might pause for a moment and consider the very real implications of introducing new, seemingly redundant voting requirements just as we get ready to enter the 2012 election cycle: suppress voter turnout.  As the national organization Election Protection shows there is a move to introduce new versions of voter ID bills in 32 states (as well as other new voter hoops in additional states).  Such measures are proven to suppress voter turnout:

The Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten reports that Republicans in state legislatures “are pushing for new laws that would prohibit many college students from voting in the state-and effectively keep some from voting at all.” A bill being introduced in New Hampshire “would permit students to vote in their college towns only if they or their parents had previously established permanent residency there,” and others would end Election Day Registration where it already exists. Election Day registration is a an important reform that ensures that problems with registration, clerical errors, or arbitrary deadlines do not create a barrier to the ballot box. Wallsten also wrote that legislatures in 32 states have proposed measures that would add an ID requirement or proof of citizenship. These requirements are especially discouraging impediments to low-income voters, students, recently-naturalized citizens, and other minorities.

The current ID law allows students to use their official university ID as proof of identification.  Metcalfe’s legislation would prevent that and require all voters to show an official PA voter registration card.  You might ask, “what’s the big deal,” until you begin to think through some very practical issues.

Efforts to get more college students registered to vote often happen on their college campuses and elections happen, for the most part, when college classes are in session.  If the goal is to encourage citizens to participate in the democratic process, then you want to make it easier for people to register to vote and to exercise that vote.  Since many students live in legislative district outside of the district in which their college or university is located, it would be easiest for students to vote on campus — meaning they would register to vote in the university’s district.  The easiest form of ID to show as proof of residence is your college ID.  Sure, students could change their official address on their driver’s license every year, or under Metcalfe’s bill they could change their Voter ID address every year.  But you know the realities of that as well as I do.  Heading the DMV to get my license renewed or my address changed is not something I want to do unless I am forced to do it.

And that’s the key to the Metcalfe’s proposed legislation: to suppress voter turnout by introducing enough confusion and inconvenience so that people say “forget about it.”  No one can accuse Metcalfe or any other politician who votes for the legislation of directly attempting to suppress voter turnout.  They can rely upon the realities of human behavior to make it look like the individual’s fault.  Presto.

Call me a conspiracy theorist if you will, but I am with USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham on this one.  Once you begin to track the kind of moves that are being made in the same states whose Republican Governors and/or legislatures are going after collective bargaining, public education, public services, and workers’ right, you can see the writing on the wall.  In writing about Wisconsin’s newly proposed voter ID bill, Wickham is on the money:

Walker’s bill is a shoot-the-wounded assault on the Democratic Party’s base, which when combined with a voter ID law that’s also being pushed through Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature, could put the Badger State firmly in GOP hands for decades.

The proposed ID law would restrict the right to vote to people with military IDs, driver’s licenses and a state-issued ID card. Passports and photo ID cards issued to college students (even those from state universities) would not be acceptable.

College students and public unions are pillars of the Democratic base. Wisconsin’s ID law would suppress voter participation among students. A 2005 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute study found that 82% of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds did not have a driver’s license in the ZIP codes for neighborhoods near Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The study also showed that statewide, the majority of college-age blacks and Hispanics lacked driver’s licenses . . .

. . . Late last month, Texas’ Senate passed a voter ID law that requires people in that state to show a driver’s license, military ID, a passport, a state or citizenship ID card or a concealed handgun license before being allowed to vote. Over the past decade, Texas’ population grew to 25 million people. Hispanics were 65%, blacks 22% and whites just 4.2% of that population surge. Whites now make up less than half of all Texans and tend to be older. So not surprisingly, the Republican-controlled Senate made an exception to the ID law for people older than 70. Those voters need to show only a voter registration card to vote.

This is the nature of the war the GOP is waging. It’s a quest for political hegemony — and a fight Democrats cannot afford to lose.

A plan to dissuade college students from participating in the 2012 election>  You bet.  If you are going to wage a war on the middle-class like the Republicans in several states are doing – and like Gov. Corbett is doing — then you better find a way to prevent those folks who are pissed off the most from voting in the next election.  To put in the words of comedian Lee Camp, “Evil People Have Plans” (thanks to Jay and his Best of the Left Podcast for including Camp’s rant in his most recent show).

Like I’ve been saying for a while now, we’re facing a game-changer folks.  The outcome of our current struggles – in PA, WI, OH, MI, ID, IN, and around the country – will determine our immediate futures.  Not only are we fighting for our individual well-beings, we are in the midst of deciding what kind of State and nation we are going to live in for the next generation.  I’d love to hear evidence to the contrary, but that’s the way I see it at this point.

And, in PA, students are at the forefront of this game-changer.  There are a lot of people saying their prayers every night that students will begin showing up in the thousands to rallies on their campus and in the State Capitol.  We’ll have the next test on Monday, March 28th as students and faculty gather in Harrisburg to protest Corbett’s cuts.  A bigger challenge that will confront  students in the days to come will be whether they can sustain their efforts for the remainder of the semester and over the summer?  The summer break has long been used by university administrators and politicians to disrupt and thwart student mobilizations. What is clear is that now is not the time for complacency.  As Michael Moore put it during an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, “Everybody, up off the couch right now, please.”

I do want to be clear that I am not saying that resistance to Corbett’s cuts doesn’t require everyone to get up off the couch and get involved.  PASSHE and other faculty should be showing up in droves on their campuses and in Harrisburg.  Not only are our immediate livelihoods at stake, the nature of the institution that we have dedicated our lives to is under assault.  And it’s true that university faculty are not the easiest bunch to get to show up either – even when their own jobs are at stake.  So, we – faculty organizers – have our work cut out for us too.  I mean, if faculty are not willing to fight a direct assault on higher education and, specifically, the very universities in which they work, then I am not sure what they would be willing to fight for.  In my mind, organizing in opposition to Corbett’s cuts to higher education amount to a moral imperative for PASSHE faculty.  A similar challenge is posed our  AFSCME and SCUPA brothers and sisters.

However, in my gut I believe that our ability to resist Corbett’s cuts will succeed or fail depending upon students ability and willingness to mobilize.

I’ll close this post for now.  I hope to write again later tonight about some of the serious problems with what I keep hearing from Democrats, Republicans, PASSHE officials and union leaders about decreasing the amount of Corbett’s cuts – I’m in the “no cuts to education” camp, not the “don’t-rip-off-both-my-arms,-just-my-left-one” camp.  But for now, I’ll leave you with how the issue was framed in a recent editorial published in Public Opinion:

According to Associated Press, thousands of students and faculty staged demonstrations Tuesday at most of Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities. Our State System of Higher Education is targeted by Corbett to lose more than half its funding.

It was yet another example of the emerging push-back against a coordinated nationwide effort to use budget deficits as justification to enact highly ideological policy goals at the expense of the young.

Bear in mind, we’re talking about young people, the only demographic with the power to balance public policy favoring older folks. It’s also the only demographic to so consistently fail to vote, directly propagating the imbalance against its interests.

It’s usually considered a safe political bet to give them the shaft. But whenever students get agitated, politicians get nervous — because they’re used to safely ignoring their concerns.

Good. Politicians should be nervous. If they’re going to emasculate the business potential of our next generation of adults, they shouldn’t be allowed to rely on the standard election metrics.

We can only hope thousands more Pennsylvania students take inspiration from those already agitating for fairness, for shared sacrifice, for acknowledgment of their importance to our future.

We recommend they get to fighting now, because in a few months the moment could be lost.

via PO EDITORIAL: Students hold their fate in their own hands – Chambersburg Public Opinion.

About Editor, Raging Chicken Press

Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. When he's not rabble-rousing on Raging Chicken, he's teaching rhetoric and writing at Kutztown University. Contact: Website | Facebook | Twitter | More Posts

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