NEW YORK -- Thousands of students, union members and Occupy protesters are gathering Monday at the New York and California state capitols, calling for a millionaire's tax to fund public higher education.
The two protests, organized separately but held in solidarity, follow March 1 nationwide demonstrations, in which Occupy College protests called on the universities to stop employee layoffs and hikes in tuition and fees. But Monday's demonstrations are shifting the action from the campuses to the capitols, calling on legislators and governors to reverse a trend of cutbacks at public universities.
"We are going to the Capitol because refunding public education is urgent," said Richard Walker, co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, citing as reasons "equal opportunity and human development" as well as "universal access to high-quality education reduces the need for prisons, policing, welfare and a range of other expensive social services.”
California's public universities lost more than a $1 billion in support from the state in a round of cuts for the 2011-12 budget. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, announced in December, another $300 million would unexpectedly be cut from higher education because revenues were coming in below projections. Since California's budget cutting fervor set in back in 2009, public universities in the state have have lost $2 billion and community colleges had $695 million trimmed from their budgets.
Students in California have held dozens of demonstrations against tuition hikes and budget cuts, to no avail. Tuition increased from $3,500 in 2001 to more than $13,000 in 2011 at the state's public universities.
"We can't just keep saying don't cut us," Charlie Eaton, a University of California, Berkeley grad student and organizer with ReFund California Coalition, told The Huffington Post. "Rather, we need to change the debate to 'Who should pay?'"
Some students and faculty members have been on a 99-mile march, which began in Oakland on Thursday and was expected to end at the capitol in Sacramento on Monday.
Van Jones, a former White House adviser and founder of the Rebuild the Dream coalition, will speak at the California state capitol alongside the student and faculty demonstrators.
"I'm here for one reason," Jones said Monday morning, "I am very proud of this young generation and very ashamed of my own. We are pulling the ladder up behind us and we have to start putting it back down for these young people."
Last March as New York's legislature approved $1.3 billion in education cuts, hundreds of protesters protested at the capitol in Albany .
On Monday, students are joining the organizing groups New York Students Rising and Occupy Education with a demonstration at the state capitol in Albany. They're asking the New York legislature to not further cut higher education and to pass a millionaire's tax to pay for it.
"Essentially in New York state," Sean Collins, a member of New York Students Rising, said, "what's happening now is what happened 10 years ago in California, and they lost. We're hoping it's different here."
Nationwide since 1985, college tuition and fees have increased more than fivefold, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While student enrollment has grown at public colleges and universities over the past decade, staffing levels have declined. According to the Government Accountability Office, both public and private universities have increasingly relied on tuition for funding as states have dropped support and endowments slowed or shrunk.
There have been signals Cuomo and the New York legislature will push for a more progressive state income tax structure. Polling of New Yorkers from October, while Occupy Wall Street protests were in full swing in the financial district of Manhattan, showed voters favored instituting a millionaire's tax.
New York City Council Member Gale Brewer, a Democrat, said if a millionaire's tax is passed in New York, the Occupy movement could take credit for that.
"In the big picture," Brewer told HuffPost, "Occupy Wall Street has changed the dialogue, in terms of people realizing this inequity."
Student protesters in New York and California are counting on momentum from the Occupy movement.
Collins in New York is hopeful a millionaire's tax will provide a solution to financial shortfalls.
"This should be one of the biggest student-led events ever at the capital," Collins said. "We cannot be ignored anymore. There needs to be a change in dialogue; we need to change this dominant rhetoric about education. The argument is that 'there's no money there,' but there is money."
HuffPost's Caitlin Brown contributed reporting.
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