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The Connecticut Free College Coalition

Our response to the University of Connecticut’s latest 6.5 percent annual tuition hike should be to start the Connecticut Free College Coalition.

UConn justifies this imposition of new financial burdens on students and their families by claiming the legislature slashed spending on higher ed in the last two years by 13 percent.

Why isn’t Susan Herbst camped out in the state capital demanding lower student tuition? Because that’s not her role. The University President’s mission is to perpetuate the institution, not care for students.

So students need to care for themselves. Students need to press her to act. I’m not looking for sit-ins or campus walk-outs, although that would be an aspect of the Connecticut Free College Coalition’s charge.

What we should be looking for is a concerted, organized campaign to change the way the judicial, legislative and executive branches approach higher education policy and practice. If this is successful, a domino effect will alter the policies governing all other education, from pre-k through vocational schools.

Thus, we need to recruit high school students, college students, recent grads saddled by debt, parents who can’t afford tuition, grandparents who wonder what happened to their UConn, which charged $300 a semester.

We need to activate people who believe in the fundamental right to an education. American education is such a mess right now because the corporate education reformers control the debate.

Forty years ago, the Powell Supreme Court turned the debate in public schooling away from rights by refusing to declare the education a fundamental right using the magical language of Constitutional jurisprudence.

Right now, we who cherish and want to foster a robust public education system are stuck simply naysaying the charter schoolers and privatizers. We need to present an alternative vision of education, and we have not taken the opportunity to present what we see.

We cannot cede the discussion. When we do, Connecticut suffers under the callous influence of this conservative, right wing decision-making apparatus. Connecticut’s state constitution declares education a fundamental right, protected by the strictest scrutiny.

But our state government does not act this way, so the right has not translated into a political reality of free college tuition. Connecticut’s constitutional language provides an opportunity to explore exactly how far can we expand the right to education.

The Coalition would take a multi-pronged attack. First, the Coalition needs to generate enough momentum on campuses to take over student governments, and advocate on campuses for activism and legislative response to the skyrocketing tuition and debt rates.

Second, the Coalition organizes off campus with non-students to lobby the legislature and elect candidates who value free college tuition and decry the privatization of K-12 public schools.

The teachers’ unions can be more effective in stopping the march of the billionaires as they try to commodify the public’s unfettered right to learn. Let’s elect free college people to run teachers unions.

Then, using the NAACP/Ruth Bader Ginsburg model, let’s find test cases. Let’s find a teacher who wants to sue for remuneration for all the papers and pencils they have had to buy. Sheff v. O’Neill wasn’t the end of the frontier in expanding education. Let’s find the best and brightest minds and move the courts.

It seems that the idea in giving away elementary schools in Hartford or Bridgeport or New Haven is to export the private college model. Note that suburbs like Simsbury are not on this list. Simsbury’s elite would revolt if the state gave away a public elementary school.

But the state handles the education of non-whites under the rubric of the white man’s burden. Instead of blaming poverty for low student achievement, the economic forces which create such massive wealth gaps say the solution is to change school management systems.

Removing public infrastructure from the control of the people is always a bad idea. How did that privatized military quartermastering work out for us in Iraq? Not well.

Yet the corporate greed masters have learned a lesson from Hartford’s failure with Edison Schools. The district-wide takeover crashed and burned, so let’s go after individual schools, one at a time, and no one will notice.

A chain of slavery forged one link at a time does not become heavy until it is too late. How long is it before an Amistad Academy seeks to charge tuition? How long before Achievement First decides to sell stock?

Impossible, you say? Who could have predicted that the not-for-profit model of Blue Cross Blue Shield would ever fall under the weight of Wall Street? The commodification of third grade has long been underway, beginning before the onslaught of advertising on children’s television.

The Connecticut Free College Coalition should recruit high profile student atheletes. Eliminating college tuition eliminates the NCAA’s heinous rationale for not paying college athletes: they get an education. But if college tuition was free, players who bring in millions for universities have to get paid. The free college movement hammers the final nails into the NCAA’s coffin.

The free college movement naturally eschews private, independent colleges that charge tuition. Is it too radical to say that those private, independent universities – think Briarwood, Trinity, University of Hartford, Yale – should be taken under eminent domain and made state assets? Forces will fight Yale’s inclusion – it has a $30 billion endowment. Those monies should be used for all student education, not just Yalies. For-profit colleges like Lincoln and Phoenix will howl and wail. And then they will lose.

This kind of debate changes the conversation, and puts corporate forces on the defensive. In enumerating our vision for a new Connecticut educational system, we put the reformers on the defensive, and take them off their game of privatize. They already have privatization, and it isn’t working for us.

The right to education means that the government has duties to provide citizens with education. We can force the state to move in our direction.

Home rule can allow to push aside the reformers who find shelter in the federal government’s refusal to acknowledge the right to speech is useless without a right to education. Public schools deserve special protections, and we start that movement in Connecticut.

The Connecticut Free College Coalition, then, combats the privatization movement and the student debt situation simultaneously. In doing so, it becomes a piece of infrastructure to help replace the decaying civic institutions of this corporate state.

Forward this column to as many people as you can. Let’s build momentum. Let’s hold a meeting. Let’s organize, and move this forward. The time is ripe. The moment is ours.

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