More money for education became the main message demonstrators tried to send to state legislators last Friday when students and faculty gathered in front of VCU’s James Branch Cabell Library before the education march to the State Capitol.
“Education is our right, not a privilege,” said Shannon Eastwood, a VCU senior theater major and member of the Student Education Coalition.
The coalition, along with the Student Government Association, organized Friday’s event, said Jon Grove, a junior computer science major and member of the coalition. An estimated 30 students joined to listen to speeches by faculty members as well as students.
Grove said the six-member coalition started as a class project for world religions and ethics.
“The students were assigned (in a class) to form a group based on an issue of their choice, and the people in our group were the ones who were concerned with education,” he said. “We decided to keep working together and eventually formed a group and gave ourselves a formal name.”
In 1999, Eastwood said 74 percent of VCU’s students held jobs while in school, which is what hurts their grades, limits the class schedule and keeps them in college longer than the expected four years.
“What we want to say today,” Eastwood said, “is that it’s not that we are lazy. It’s not that we don’t want to work, but we think that the federal government should support us and let us know that education is important for them, too.”
Charlie Schmidt, a VCU student and coalition member, said during his speech that the problem lies within the government’s inability to acknowledge students’ needs.
“The majority of problems facing education fall on deaf ears,” he said. “We hear representatives at the Capitol always say they are, of course, for education but they do not deliver results in session.”
Eastwood said the coalition specifically wants to get money for tuition.
“It would be great if our government would pay for housing and books,” she said, “but tuition is the largest chunk of our college expenditure, and that is what we often have loans for.
“The issue is that the federal government only covers 10 percent of the budget for education. The burden is laid on the state and the communities, and we are hoping that by making it a presidential issue for the campaign, we can get more pressure on the federal government to support us.”
Robert Andrews, president of VCU’s Faculty Senate, told the group in front of Cabell that the government has not fulfilled its promise of adequately funding education.
“I am going to compare this to an uncle that is committed to pay part of our tuition for you,” he said. “The uncle fell on hard times and he was not able to deliver.
“Well, this in your case is Aunt Virginia that promised to make some payments for you, and she fell on hard times and unfortunately put herself on the limits and didn’t have any reserves to be able to hold up to the commitments that she had made.”
Mark Wood, an associate professor for religious studies, emphasized to the students that the state does have money for education, but needs to change its spending priorities.
“There is money – plenty of money in fact,” he said. “There are billions of dollars around. There are $80 billion right now that are being spent on one project rather than another project.”
Jack Hirsch, a senior philosophy major and coalition member, said the government needs to fund fewer military excursions and more educational excursions.
“Primarily, we are trying to see effects at all levels of government, starting with the state and then moving to the federal level,” he said. “I don’t think that we adequately give the proper funding for education nationwide, not only statewide.”
His classrooms, Wood said, are filled with students of different ethnic backgrounds, and education is very important because it helps students bridge the distinction between “us and them.”
“They learn to recognize our commonalities and enjoy our differences as human beings,” he said.
From the main campus, demonstrators went to the Greater Richmond Convention Center on Sixth Street, where they collectively marched with the Virginia Education Association members to the State Capitol.
A trumpet played the melody of “Oh, when the saints go marching in,” while the demonstrators took to the streets and substituted the words of the song with “Oh, when the kids begin to learn, I want to have the supplies that I need to help our children learn.”
Gary Thomas, a VEA member who teaches high school agriculture in Spotsylvania County, said he marched for the increase of funding for education and for teachers.
Patsy Smith, also a member of the VEA and a second-grade teacher in Prince William County, agreed.
“Our main purpose here today is to let people know that we need funding for education. We need new school buildings and quality programs,” she said.
Lt. Mike O’Neil, who is in charge of the crowd response team at the Richmond Police Department, said the estimated crowd of 850 people at the State Capitol behaved better than most rallies he has experienced in the past.
“This is outstanding,” he said. “These people are very cooperative. They have marched down tightly. They are not scattered all over the place like most groups are.” Capt. Larry Dollings of the Richmond Police Department agreed that the crowd was very well-behaved.
“During a course of the year, we have about 65 different demonstrations held down here at the Bell Tower, including the ‘Food Not Bombs’ antiwar rally,” he said. “This one is very compact and they seem more enthusiastic in their cheering.