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Group declares education system is in ‘state of emergency’

Evan Kolosna poses for a portrait in the Highsmith Student Union at UNC Asheville on Tuesday, March 26. Kolosna is a member of the N.C. Student Power movement’s UNCA division. Today, the statewide group declared a ‘state of emergency’ today in response to what it sees as an assault on education spending as outlined in Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed state budget. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

Declaring a “state of emergency” today, University of North Carolina system students upset about tuition increases and other issues are organizing to counter what they see as an assault on education spending by Gov. Pat McCrory.

On March 20, McCrory proposed a $20.6 billion state budget that adds money for education and includes a 1 percent pay hike for state employees. Hours earlier, the North Carolina Student Power Union issued a list of demands it wants included in the budget that the General Assembly works out with the governor, including:

  • No further cuts to public education and an increase in need-based financial aid.
  • Full funding to all UNC system programs, including minority studies.
  • A “living wage” and collective bargaining rights for all state workers.
  • Full funding for unemployment insurance, Medicaid expansion, K-12 education and other social programs.
  • Increased taxes on corporations and the wealthiest state residents.

According to the governor’s office and reports from Carolina Public Pressthe News & Observer and WRAL.com, related items in McCrory’s proposed two-year budget include:

  • Hiring 1,800 more classroom teachers at the loss of about 3,000 teaching assistants.
  • Expanding pre-kindergarten programs to admit 5,000 more “at-risk” 4-year-olds.
  • Eliminating the state estate tax.
  • Increases funding for high-demand courses at community colleges.
  • Adding $575 million to Medicaid over two years.

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Drawing strength from protests last year by thousands of students in the province of Quebec in Canada that squelched a significant increase in tuition, NCSPU hopes to force McCrory and the Republican-dominated legislature to uphold the state’s constitutional mandate that education be as free as possible. In a press release about today’s announcement, they also cited some reports that some UNC schools may consolidate or close if the budget proposal is adopted.

The NCSPU, which morphed out of NC Defend Education Coalition this year, believes students should have a larger say in how the 16 universities in the UNC system are run. It also is fighting against racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression, its website states.

At a conference Feb. 16 at N.C. State University attended by nearly 200 students, professors and others, the union supported a wide range of social issues as well, opposing the governor and legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid and its insistence on cutting benefits for the unemployed, according to Juan Miranda, a NCSPU organizer and graduate student at UNC Greensboro.

Chapters building throughout the state

NCSPU has chapters at UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. Members at UNC Asheville, Appalachian State University and UNC Greensboro are working to establish chapters there. There has been no action at Western Carolina University, Miranda said.

“We believe public education should be about people shaping the economy instead of conforming to the demands of the economy,” Miranda said. To that effect, students should have a say in how university money is spent. “A curricula should reflect the needs of the community it serves, so it should be up to those people to determine what’s important to them.”

Miranda was speaking largely in reaction to recent comments by McCrory that UNC funding should go toward programs that teach employable skills. In a Jan. 29 radio interview with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett, former education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, McCrory said he had instructed staff to draft legislation changing the way the UNC system is funded, focusing more on results – graduates getting jobs – than on liberal arts programs like women’s and gender studies.

Miranda believes students have a unique strength to make change happen.

“We’re seeing movements being spearheaded by youth around the world to fight back against the tax on our futures – the austerity, the budget cuts, the diminishing of our safety net, of graduating in debt only to find no jobs,” he said. Fifty-four percent of North Carolina college students graduate with student debts that average $20,800 per student, according to The Project on Student Debt.

Evan Kolosna, a UNCA student, attended NCSPU’s organizational conference Feb. 16 partly, he said, to fight for his school.

“UNCA, being a liberal arts school, we want this to be where you explore what you want to do in life,” Kolosna said. “And we want to keep it affordable.”

The formation of a UNCA chapter of NCSPU is “a work in progress,” Kolosna said. Meetings have consisted of a handful of members from campus organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society, Herman@s Orgullosos en Las Americas (HOLA), the Alliance, which is comprised of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and other students, and the Feminist Collective.

UNCA supports students organizing

UNCA supports its students organizing over any issue they feel is necessary, said Jackie McHargue, dean of students. “We support our students if they want to have a more organized voice,” she said. Students have always been given an opportunity to address proposed tuition and fee increases and have had representatives on the committee that proposes the coming year’s tuition and fees, McHargue said.

Kolosna would like NCSPU to work on creating diversity at UNCA. For a school that espouses the benefits of a diverse education, Kolosna said he believes it has relatively few minority students.

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According to the UNCA Fact Book 2012-13‘s Table 13, 10.6 percent of the student population enrolled during the fall semester of 2012 was of a minority group.

Statistics like this may not be representative of the university’s actual minority population, McHargue said, because students are not required to report their ethnic origin. Some students also may not report it because they do not feel their group is represented, she said.

“For us as a campus, we look at diversity as being ethnic, cultural, religious and in other ways,” McHargue said. The university continues to work on increasing the success of its recruitment and retention efforts of minority students, she said.

Kolosna said he and others would also like to see gender-neutral housing – housing assigned by student preference, not gender – at UNCA. The university has no formal gender-neutral housing policy, but school officials say that for the last few years, UNCA has found single housing for transgender students.

Students at Appalachian State University have little say in how the university is run, according to Austin Mann, a NCSPU organizer on campus. The chapter there is a couple of months old and has about 10 members, he said. An opinion writer whose work has appeared in the university newspaper, Mann said he finds the student government association ineffective in affecting change.

The SGA passes resolutions, then doesn’t press for their enforcement, said Mann, a freshman from Cary studying computer science. As an example, he cited a bill the SGA passed during the 2011-2012 school year calling for the university to create an annual event showcasing all the different majors and minors available at ASU. The university has yet to create the event, Mann said.

In response to an SGA request, ASU in October implemented “Finish in Four,” a web-based degree audit tool to help students navigate curriculum requirements.

“We don’t want to overthrow our schools system,” Kolosna said. “We just want to change them so that our voice is heard. Maybe if we can’t get heard on the government level, we can be heard on a campus level. It’s on the campus level where lots of things happen. Often the battle is at that level.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Evan Kolosna’s name due to an editing error. It has been corrected.

Paul Clark

Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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