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June 2, 2015

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j. patrick coolican:

Coolican: Young protesters, worried about future, hardly ‘spoiled brats’

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Traveling overnight Sunday with hundreds of students on their way to the state capital to protest budget cuts, I would occasionally awaken and see, through the rain, the lights of the caravan of buses.

It was hard not to feel a bit inspired by the students’ passion for their education — a passion that is so lacking in other quarters of the state, where casual contempt for teachers and college professors and students has become like a strange badge of honor.

“Spoiled brats,” was a term thrown around on Twitter Monday by Republican operative Robert Uithoven.

No doubt there are some of those in our higher education system, but I doubt they were among the more than 1,000 students demonstrating against Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed 17 percent cut to higher education.

What seems lost on the haters is, given that just 14 percent of Nevadans possess a bachelor’s degree, it stands to reason that many of our university students are the first in their families to attend college. Spoiled brats? Am I on Mars?

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, a North Las Vegas Democrat, asked students testifying before a joint budget committee meeting Monday how many hold down jobs in addition to attending school. Nearly all of them raised their hands.

America Acevedo — no kidding, her name — is an aspiring doctor studying neuroscience. She recalled her first stirrings of ambition: She was 14 and at a welfare office with her mother, who apologized to her for dragging her there. Acevedo, a UNR student, told legislators on Monday that at that moment she decided she was going to college, and that someday she would support her mother. She works three jobs to pay for school and help out at home, she says. This is the type of person even Republicans once applauded, but now apparently merely attending a state university automatically qualifies you for derision.

UNLV students Tom Stewart, Andrew Spivak and Sterling Kavitky were on my bus, and each worries that a degree from UNLV is not only becoming more expensive — tuition could rise as much as 12 percent per year during each of the next two years — but also sort of worthless.

Spivak says he imagines interviewing for a job and being laughed at “because the university went bankrupt,” referring to the strong possibility of “financial exigency,” which is the university equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

By late Monday afternoon, the students were back on the buses, done chanting and cheering for now.

Will it make any difference?

“Probably not,” a prominent lobbyist said to me.

They created some excitement, but off they went, and once again, lobbyists for the state’s big moneyed interests outnumbered citizens and legislators by an order of magnitude.

(Imagine how different things would be if the state capital weren’t hundreds of miles from where 75 percent of the state resides, and these students could camp out every day at the Legislature.)

Democrats, one operative told me, are committed to doing things differently this time — to mobilizing their grass roots rather than playing the insider ballgame. They plan two more large demonstrations, and a source close to Horsford called Monday “a huge turning point” and said they now felt emboldened to talk about taxes. Excuse me, revenue.

Up until now, Democrats, just like two years ago, have whispered about taxes to pay for services like higher education as if it were a shameful family secret.

Consider the best sign of the day, which may not have been true during our construction and tourism booms, but these days is looking more true all the time:

“Uneducated equals unemployed.”

Coolican’s column appears every Tuesday and Friday.

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