TULARE, CA -- As the March for California's Future heads up the San Joaquin Valley towards Sacramento, participants are coming up hard against the reality of the economic crisis in rural California. The march began in Bakersfield, the day after widespread protests swept through the state's schools and universities on March 4. It is a protest against the impact of state budget cuts on education and social services, and marchers are finding that Valley communities are among those that feel their effects most strongly.
"Watsonville has a 27% unemployment rate," says Jenn Laskin, a teacher at Renaissance Continuation High School there. "It's the strawberry capital of the world, and strawberries are a luxury. In a recession, people stop buying them, so workers no longer have a job in the fields. I have many students who have both parents out of work, who grow food in our school garden for their families."
But in the Central Valley, she thinks, things seem worse. "The towns we've been passing through feel a lot more desolate," Laskin explains. Those include the small farm worker communities of Shafter, McFarland, Delano, Pixley and Tulare. "I see a lot of fields with nothing planted at all. I was in a Mexican restaurant in Pixley and there was not a Mexican in sight. The problems I see in Watsonville might even be sharper here. I see more need here, and I'm guessing probably fewer services."
She's not far off. The official unemployment rate in December in Kern County was 16%. Since Bakersfield, a major urban area, has a lower rate, towns like Shafter and McFarland have even more jobless. Crossing into Kings and Tulare Counties, unemployment jumps to over 17% in each.
The march's call to restore the promise of public education is the motivator keeping Laskin, and the march's other Watsonville participant, Emmanuelle Ballesteros, walking from one town to the next. As the youngest marcher at 21, Ballesteros says he's doing it especially for the youth and students of his community. "In Watsonville they're overcrowding classes," he charges. "Fewer classes, with more students, discourage youth because they need the help. Now there's none."
Ballesteros suffered from that himself. "He was pushed out of the system," Laskin charges. "I feel like Manny is the reason we're marching. He is a child of immigrants, with as much right to the California dream as anybody. He gives credibility to this march."
In Delano the marchers saw the four prisons that have replaced farm labor as the community's major source of employment. Seeing watchtowers and walls topped by razor wire brought the contradictions home for Ballesteros. "Delano and Watsonville are puro Latino," he explains. "The families are poor, doing farm labor. Now they're building more prisons in California than schools, and there are more Blacks and Mexicans inside those prisons. For young people like me, instead of being able to get a job, and achieving our goals, they tell you, 'You're not going to make it.'"
What Ballesteros sees as he walks makes him angry. "But I'm turning it into something positive. This march might make a little bit of change here."
Laskin says education cuts have reduced the number of school nurses in Watsonville to seven, for 19,000 students, and eliminated school psychologists and counselors, music and art. "Sports have become pay to play," she says, "which means that students who are talented and don't have the money lose the opportunity." Next year K-2 classes will have 28 students. "One child in kindergarten told me, 'we can't even fit on the rug anymore.'"
The legal limit of 20 students for K-3 grade classes was modified in the legislature's recent budget deals. "In our district, it's cheaper to raise the class size and pay the penalty than to keep class sizes small," she laments. "And combined with the emphasis on test scores, it all affects children's ability to learn. We have second grade students who don't even know how to use scissors, because they've been taught to the test. They can bubble in letters and numbers, but they can't cut a circle in a piece of paper."
In the San Joaquin Valley Laskin sees the same crisis. "We've talked with many teachers who have received pink slips," she says. "I spoke with one teacher who worked three jobs to put herself through school. She's in her second year, which means that on the first day of next year she'd have tenure and couldn't be laid off. So she's being laid off this year. Her family's lived in McFarland for five generations, and her father has been a custodian for the district there for 23 years. Without a job there won't be anything to keep her in the community where she grew up. The closest place to look for work is Bakersfield, where they just issued 200 pink slips, and many highly qualified teachers are fighting for the same job."
The march's goals include rebuilding a government and economy that works for all Californians, and enacting a fair tax system to fund it. After marchers had been walking for a week, they spent a day in front of Loews Hardware, the 99¢ Store and Wal-Mart in Tulare. There they asked people to sign petitions to qualify a ballot initiative that would remove the requirement that two-thirds of the legislature approve any budget.
Even though urban Democrats have had a majority for years in both the State Senate and the Assembly, a solid Republican block can prevent a vote to adopt a budget until legislators agree to slash spending. Cuts in spending produce pink slips for teachers, and fewer social services. Small San Joaquin Valley towns are among those electing politicians who demand budget cuts and oppose tax increases, which also require a two-thirds majority.
Dozens of the workers who care for aged and sick family members in the towns along the route are walking too. One of them, Doug Moore, heads United Domestic Workers Local 3930. "The budget cuts on the table in Sacramento could even lead to the elimination of home care itself," he says. "Statewide there are 127,000 nursing home beds, but only 20,000 available. So where are people going to go? And what will happen to the jobs of those who care for them?"
Nevertheless, "many people are not making the connection that legislators elected here in the Valley are among those using the two-thirds requirement to slash services," Laskin charges. "It's a long conversation. This whole system was put into place so that the average person can't understand what's going on." The march creates opportunities to talk with people - part of an education process she believes is needed.
Town hall meetings are planned in three larger towns on the route. And as they go, marchers are registering voters, getting petitions signed, and collecting people's ideas on little yellow 'I Have a Dream for California' cards. "We'll be delivering thousands of them to Sacramento when we arrive on the steps of the capitol," Laskin predicts. That's set to happen April 21. "I think it was right to choose the Central Valley for this march."