California Needs to Fund Public Education and Social Services, Not Prisons

Originally published on 14 November 2011 by the California Progress Report.

By Amy Vanderwarker, Critical Resistance and Matt Haney, University of California Students Association

Last Wednesday night, more than one thousand students and campus workers at University of California Berkeley held a day of action protesting budget cuts and fee increases to build momentum toward a state-wide demonstration at the UC Regents meeting on November 17th.  Like other Occupy movements around the country, the crowd was cleared with police violence and mass arrests.  The irony was not lost on one professor, who noted that the sharp rise in student debt has occurred during a period where prison funding has consistently been prioritized over funding for higher education.

Indeed, California is now a leader on two counts that don’t make any resident proud: we have the largest prison population in the country, and our public universities have hiked tuition the most of any state in the country, 21% in the past year alone.[1] We now spend nearly equivalent amounts of money on locking people in cages as we do providing opportunities for higher education – 10.5 % of total state spending versus 12.7 %.[2]

There is a disturbing, inverse relationship to public education and the number of people locked up in cages: our prison population and budget has skyrocketed, while the amount of spending on public education has plummeted. Spending on prisons has grown 1500% since 1980, while higher education spending has dropped. Since 1980, our state built 1 university and 20 prisons. K-12 faced a 10.5% cut in 2009-2010, and per pupil spending has steadily decreased since 1980.[3]

Despite these deep cuts to public education, on top of similar cuts  to Health and Human Services and our social safety net, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Governor Brown and County Boards of Supervisors are pushing forward  the largest prison building project in the history of the world. In 2007, as the economic crisis was starting to unfold in the boardrooms and trading floors of the 1%, and predatory lending schemes were about to hit millions of Californians, the state authorized AB 900, which called for $12.4 billion to build 53,000 more prison and jail cells, which will cost taxpayers roughly $1.5 billion per year to operate. Our state prisons currently hold around 156,000 people,[4] and conditions are so atrocious that in May the US Supreme Court ordered the population to be reduced.

Just over two weeks ago, as schools and universities across the state brace for the possibility of devastating trigger cuts, CDCR asked for counties to submit proposals to disperse $603 million in  funds to build new jail cells. The funding is part of Phase II of AB 900 and directly linked to “realignment,” where the state is transferring the responsibility for low-level prisoners to counties But instead of giving counties incentives to provide alternatives to imprisonment or re-entry services, such as educational opportunities that could strengthen entire communities in crisis, the state is making it easier for counties to access AB 900 money and only providing counties financial incentives to build more cells.

Where is our state getting money to build cages? Slashing the social safety net and the budget for public education and tuition hikes. Budget cuts figuratively, and literally, make students pay. Tuition at UC schools has increased 200% since 2008.[5]  UC President Yudoff has proposed increasing tuition as much as 81%, in the face of a potential $2.5 billion dollar cut to education this winter.[6] California Community Colleges faced a tuition increase of 37% in 2011.

Let’s not forget the dollars that are often left out of the estimated costs of public education: student debt. About 56% of students who earned bachelor’s degrees at public colleges in 2009-10 graduated with debt, with an average burden of $22,000. In 2011, this number grew 5 percent, to over $25,000.[7]

We spend a whooping $46,000 a year on keeping people confined, away from loved ones and in atrocious conditions, while we spend a mere $8,908 a year per youth in our elementary, middle and high schools. California leads the nation in prison spending, but we rank 46th in terms of K-12 per pupil spending. What would it look like if those numbers were reversed?

On November 9th and 16th, despite police repression, thousands of students in California are drawing attention to the slashing of public education funds through the ReFund Public Education Week of Action. Mobilizations are happening on 16 campuses across the State including in Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Riverside which are also some of the counties seeking AB 900 funding to expand their jails.

As part of the Occupy movement, in mobilizations and school walk-outs across the state, people are saying no to public education austerity measures, and identifying solutions for generating progressive revenue streams in a time of economic recession: tax the rich and corporations, and use public money to bail out residents, not banks and Wall Street firms. The Occupy movement  has mobilized tens of thousands of people to protest the consolidation of wealth among a small group of people, the obscene profits that corporations are making while everyday residents watch their social services cut on a daily basis, and the use of public funds to prop up these corrupt institutions.

Our list of demands needs to include cutting prison spending first, not last, and making those cuts by sending people home with strong re-entry services, not making conditions inside even worse. California needs a prison and jail construction moratorium now, or we will never have free higher education. Just as the 99 percent says that it is time for banks and corporations to pay, it is time for California to get our priorities straight: fund public education and social services, not prisons.

For more information, check:,,,,

1 California leads nation in escalation of college costs, By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2011,0,5233674.story

2 California Budget Project, “California’s Public Schools have experienced deep cuts in funding since 2007-8” and “ Steady Climb: State Corrections Spending in California”

3 California Budget Project, “California’s Public Schools have experienced deep cuts in funding since 2007-8”


5 Elysse James, “UC schools increase fall tuition 8%,%=” Orange County Register, Nov. 18, 2010,

6 Larry Gordon, “Tuition increase alarms UC board,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 16, 2011

7 College Graduates’ Debt Burden Grew, Yet Again, in 2010

Amy Vanderwarker is a member of Critical Resistance, and a part of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a statewide alliance of over 40 organizations seeking to control prison spending by reducing the number of people in prison and the number of prisons in the state.

Matt Haney is the Executive Director of the University of California Students Association (UCSA), a coalition of students and student governments that aims to provide a collective voice for all students through advocacy and direct action.

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