No Minimum Age in Protests Against Funding Cuts

By Joetta L. Sack — May 14, 2003 6 min read
Politics Page

It seems that the face of political activism is getting younger—at least where protests against school funding cuts are concerned.

From California to New York state, thousands of students are joining adults to demonstrate against education budget cuts that have been enacted or are under consideration by state legislatures. But while the young faces pull at the heartstrings of some, others contend that such students are being used as pawns.

In any case, it’s hard to ignore the presence of so many young people— some wielding signs in one hand and a teacher’s hand in the other.

Earlier this month, thousands of students helped make a pro-school rally in Albany, N.Y., one of the largest that lawmakers there had ever seen.

Then there were the Oregon middle school students who in January raised money and hired a charter bus so they could join hundreds of peers at the Capitol in Salem to rally for state school aid.

Meanwhile, droves of California community college students have rallied against proposed tuition and fee hikes, sparking references to the famous activism of the 1960s.

“We’re beginning to see these cuts affecting the classroom level, which is why we’re seeing increases in protests [involving students],” said Steve Smith, who heads the National Center on School Finance at the National Conference of State Legislatures, located in Denver.

Event organizers certainly hope that the sight of students—the intended beneficiaries of education spending—will move even the most steely of legislators to find more aid for schools.

“Every time a legislator looks at a kid, he sees two voters at home,” said Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the New York state affiliate of the National Education Association.

“It’s a key principle that people who are affected by decisions need to be their own best voice,” added Marcia Avner, the public- policy director for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

‘I’m Not Being Used’

But critics say students, particularly younger children, often are being used by adults who are looking to advance their own political causes.

A young girl, whose mother declined to identify her, holds a sign during a rally Feb. 6 in Portland, Ore., against proposed cuts in school funding by lawmakers.

“It’s almost an exploitation of child labor, because what many of these kids are probably feeling is a subtle pressure from an authority figure to deal with an issue that they may not agree with or understand,” said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, an Arlington, Va.-based group that advocates lower taxes.

At least some students say they relish the firsthand learning experience—and are acting on their own.

Brock Leonti, 17, recently attended a protest over education funding at the Ohio Capitol after hearing that budget cuts in his Norton, Ohio, district may force him and his classmates to pay to be in the marching band.

He resents any suggestion that he was exploited. “I’m not being used by anyone, to make any point,” he said. “I’m doing it myself, because I care.”

In some cases, students clearly have taken the lead in activism for causes that are near and dear to them.

When students at Grant High School in Portland, Ore., learned that their schools might experience severe budget cuts, they took it upon themselves to organize a rally last year at a downtown park, complete with speeches, presentations, and appearances by state legislators and the mayor.

It didn’t work.

Portland and other Oregon districts experienced unprecedented budget cuts this school year. Portland district officials even threatened to lop off days in the school year.

Rather than give up, the students expanded their campaign.

“Students at my school were so concerned over the prospects of additional cuts, days eliminated, and the loss of programs halfway through the year, we decided that our fellow students should be better informed on the subject and what effects it would have on them,” said Noel Miller, a junior at Grant High.


The group meets regularly—on their own at 6:30 a.m.—to follow state legislative action. They also have organized a student assembly and made presentations to individual classes.

The students have grown quite media-savvy, said Lew Frederick, a spokesman for the 53,000-student Portland school system.

“They understand that they are not going to get attention by simply holding a news conference,” he said. “They understand that they need to be effective and symbolic, and know who to call.”

As in Oregon, many more Minnesotans have become politically active this year, but not only because of proposed budget cuts. They are also reacting to a legislature that has become more partisan and divisive, Ms. Avner of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits said.

She advises groups to bring constituents, including students, to the Capitol in St. Paul, and helps train groups to lobby state representatives. Minnesota students recently joined rallies sponsored by groups as diverse as the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and the Asian Coalition Against Tobacco, Ms. Avner added.

In other places, the lessons in activism have started even earlier.

In one Texas district, elementary-age children were not allowed to take time off school to hold their own rally in Austin, so their parents delivered to lawmakers a 500-yard-long paper chain with 10,000 messages from the children.

But in Ohio, some legislators were not happy to see about 400 students at a rally in March that was organized by their teachers and parents.

The protesters swarmed the Capitol in Columbus to express dismay over budget cuts proposed by Gov. Bob Taft. They argued the cuts would violate state supreme court rulings that ordered a more equitable state funding formula for schools.

Gov. Taft, a Republican, had proposed $100 million in cuts to the $7.3 billion K-12 budget for fiscal 2003. Some Republicans, who hold a majority in the legislature, wanted even more in cuts.

The event was considered a field trip for the students to tour the Capitol, meet their representatives, and learn about the political process. Students from several high schools that participated even had to pass a test on the state’s education funding law before they could attend.

But some of the meetings between students and lawmakers turned confrontational. Some legislators questioned whether the occasion was a legitimate field trip, or if the students were being taken out of class for political purposes.

The state education department has since sent a reminder to districts about the policies for nonroutine uses of school buses, such as field trips.

Sen. Kevin J. Coughlin, a Republican, told local newspapers before the protest that the students’ time would be better spent in the classroom. He later met with the students during their protest and clarified his positions.

In a letter to The Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio, Mr. Coughlin wrote that he had told students that “confrontational protests such as the one in which the students and school officials were participating, are not the most effective way to have your voice heard in a democracy.”

People who are most successful in changing policies, he added in the letter, are those who don’t merely complain but instead offer new ideas and alternatives. He encouraged the students to take part in the legislature’s committee process so their ideas “would be heard in a nonconfrontational” setting.

Later, Rep. Jamie S. Callender was quoted in The Columbus Dispatch as saying that the students’ and teachers’ activism had backfired: The GOP members decided to recommend cutting a total of $900 million, instead of $800 million, from the education budget.

Mary Ann Isak, the president of the school board for the 2,600-student Norton city schools suggested that the lawmakers overreacted to the protest.

“It was such a wonderful rally—there was nothing volatile about it at all,” she said. “Those kids came back, and they were livid” about the legislators’ response.


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