It took the pepper-spraying of 30 Santa Monica College student protestors to put the brakes on a two-tier pricing plan that threatens to deny higher education to thousands of students.

Announced by the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees in March, the plan would offer high-demand, core education courses — English, history, math — at a cost of $180 per unit, while all other state-funded classes would remain at $46 per unit. The college planned to implement the program this summer with enrollment beginning in May.

This news brought out residents, faculty, staff and students. But instead of having a voice at the April 3 Board of Trustees meeting, the protesters were pepper-sprayed. It was this incident, carried out with what students called a total lack of common sense, that led to a large protest at the next board meeting on May 1.

Fittingly on International Workers’ Day, students, faculty, and community members spoke out together against the Santa Monica plan. Addressing the trustees and the 300 protesters, CFT leaders said the mission of the California Master Plan for Higher Education is to make college education accessible to all families.

John McDowell, an instructor at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, called it “extremely unfair” to set up a toll lane where only students who have the means to pay for classes will get them. “California has a huge problem,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of students are being turned away. This plan will exacerbate the problem and undermine support to restore funding.”

With the exception of Board of Trustees Chair Margaret Quiñones-Perez and Student Trustee Joshua Scuteri, college officials have maintained that increasing fees in the winter and summer semesters is the only solution to the problem of classes being cut. Quiñones-Perez is a counselor at El Camino College in Torrance, a member of the El Camino Federation of Teachers and the local’s executive board.

During the pre-meeting protest, Quiñones-Perez saluted the protesters and called her fellow board members “stubborn in their adherence to the self-funded classes.”

Her fellow AFT local union leader, Joanne Waddell, president of the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, called the two-tier plan “ground zero for public education in California. Districts are already lined up waiting to copy the Santa Monica model,” Waddell told the board. “If this is allowed to go through, it will change forever the face of public education.”

CFT helped organize the May Day protest with dozens of labor unions. Maria Elena Durazo, leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, told the Board of Trustees, “This is about free public education for everyone. On behalf of hundreds of thousands of union members, we want to abandon plans to create a separate high fee track at community college, instead let’s use our energy and resources to pass the governor’s tax initiative.”

The Santa Monica plan is still on the table, and the two-tier issue is not going away. CFT led last summer’s fight against AB 515, which would have allowed high-fee extension classes in the community colleges.

“We are adamantly and steadfastly opposed to any two-tier fee structure,” said Carl Friedlander, president of the CFT Community College Council, “as are the Statewide Faculty and Student Senates. Everyone in the system across the state has opposed Santa Monica’s effort to create a special track of classes for people who can afford them.”

He points in particular to Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, who called the Santa Monica plan illegal, and Attorney General Kamala Harris, who agrees.

— By Kelsey Duckett, Special to the California Teacher