This past week, thousands of students across the state walked out of class to protest Governor Chris Christie’s state aid cuts to education. Chanting “Christie has to go”, and holding signs up saying “protect educations”, students from Newark, West Orange, Montclair, as well as others in South Orange, Mount Holly, Maplewood and Vorhees, walked out of class, screamed and yelled, made the governor the big, bad boogie man, and basically pulled a Howard Beale from the movie “Network” saying; “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more.”
Some have lauded the students for showing concern about civic matters, particularly their own education. I get that part and, yes, it is kind of nice that they do care. But there are so many things about this recent student protest that are that concern me.
First, how can students walk out of school in the middle of a school day and protest for a couple of hours? How did administrators let that happen? Why weren’t students told before hand of specific consequences of doing such a thing? If the students were so concerned about protesting against the governor’s education cuts, why couldn’t they do it after school, between 3 and 4 p.m.?
Several students said they did it during the school day to maximize the number of students participating, implying that after school other activities would take priority. So, let me get this straight. Students were SO concerned about their education and the impact that these state budget cuts would have on their futures that they couldn’t protest after school? They had to lose school time, waste tax payer dollars, use more tax dollars for police to make sure that they were safe during the protests, because other things are more important to them after school? What a joke. Further, what IS going to happen to these students for walking out in the middle of the school day? What about if they had walked out to protest the quality of the food in the school cafeteria? Would that have been the same?
And, you can bet that as the weather gets nicer, there will be more student protests right in the middle of the school day. I can’t imagine that any of those students walked out at noon, chanting and marching and screaming and yelling, just because it was a great opportunity to get out of school and have some fun. No, that couldn’t be the case, right? I’m being too cynical, I know.
Now that students have entered into the political process, isn’t it important that they more fully understand the complexity of the situation? It’s easy to blame Governor Christie. He is the bad guy who cut state funding to education. He’s the reason we are losing teachers and programs. Christie is the reason why we may lose our freshman football team and why we might not even have a band or AP classes. But those of us who study this stuff for a living know that the truth is more complex. Local property taxes are through the roof. The biggest reason for this is negotiated contracts for public employees—particularly teachers, cops, firemen, etc.—which include salary increases, pension benefits, as well as health insurance.
58% of the local school board budgets failed last week. Governor Christie didn’t do that, the voters did. That’s right; the parents of these same students went out and voted down those budgets because they didn’t want the property tax increases that went along with them. They had every right to do that, just like local teachers had a right to go along with or reject Christie’s recommendation to accept a pay freeze and save some teaching jobs.
But, now that those school budgets have been rejected, more serious cuts are going to have to be made. There will be more teachers being let go and more programs slashed. Did Chris Christie do that all alone? He proposed a massive cut in state funding to education. It may be too high, I don’t know. But I DO know that there is an $11 billion hole in our state budget and Christie is trying to close the gap, which is why he got elected in the first place.
People said they want less government and that they want government to cut government spending. They want to shrink the size of educational bureaucracy, and now that it is happening, everyone is freaking out, including students who are kind of clueless about the process. I say, instead of walking out in the middle of the school day, students should get together with their local school officials, municipal council members and, yes, their own parents, at a nighttime meeting involving a brutally honest and painful discussion about this whole thing. Let students tell the adults in their community what they really want and what they think they need. Let the adults tell them that the town can’t afford it and property owners won’t pay for it any more. Then, they can make some really tough choices together.
The bottom line is that Chris Christie has to make some very tough decisions and he’s got our attention with what he has done so far. I say he is doing the best he can. The other thing I know is that he is one of the few people that are actually telling it like it is. So, it’s easy to make him the cause of all of our problems. It’s easy to hold up a sign saying “Christie’s a bum” because he cut education funding. But, the truth is, if students really want to learn about government, politics and education funding, they should do it AFTER school with the adult leaders in their own community and see what they can work out.
Then again, that would be a lot less fun and you wouldn’t get time off from school. You’d have to actually make a sacrifice to be at that meeting instead of Tweeting with your friends or hanging out at the local Starbucks. Do that, students of New Jersey, and then I’ll be impressed. But anyone can walk out of school, miss class on a sunny day and scream and yell that they are getting the shaft. That’s easy. Question is, where are you going to go from here, because a repeat performance will be even less impressive and not especially productive. Write to me (after school hours would be preferable) at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me what you think.