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Student Power!

April 28, 2010

I was really excited, and proud of my home state, when I read this in the New York Times yesterday. Thousands of students across New Jersey walked out to protest education cuts they fear will threaten the quality of their education.

Many states, New Jersey included, face dire budget woes, and I can appreciate the difficult position in which elected officials find themselves as they try to balance the need for the important services schools provide with the need to balance their budgets. Still, these cuts will hurt, and I think students should be applauded for standing up for themselves and their right to a quality education.

Which is why I was disturbed to read the comments of Governor Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak. He said that the students belonged in class, and added that “It is also our firm hope that the students were motivated by youthful rebellion or spring fever, and not by encouragement from any one-sided view of the current budget crisis in New Jersey.” Talk about disrespectful!

For starters, missing one day of class is hardly destructive to an entire year’s worth of education. Likewise, in America, taking a stance on an important issue and learning how to peacefully and respectfully exercise one’s First Amendment rights should be treated as a worthwhile educational experience.

But I also take issue with the patronizing tone he takes. “Youthful rebellion or spring fever”? Way to assume that teenagers can’t possibly have substantive reasons for their actions. Seriously, high school students who just want to cut class for a day don’t bother to formulate arguments, organize visible gatherings in important places, and make signs– they pile into their cars and head to the shore.

“[E]ncouragement from any one-sided view of the current budget crisis”? Could we consider the possibility that they were encouraged to act by their anxiety over possible declines in the quality of their education? After all, it is they who will have to contend most directly with the consequences of these cuts. We should be glad these kids care enough about their education to speak out against possible class-size increases, and cuts to important (but often undervalued, given their significance to students’ overall development) programs like athletics and the arts.

And really, Mr. Drewniak, should we be happy when students cut class because of “spring fever,” but annoyed when they organize a sensible protest over an important issue like education?

There is room for legitimate debate over the tough budgetary choices that need to be made in a tough economy. But de-legitimizing student voices because of their age and status should not be part of that debate.

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