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THURSDAY, FEB. 4, 2010

Students’ walkout doesn’t send best message

Could it be that student activism isn’t as dormant as it seems?

We’ll know more this afternoon when students at public universities across Washington are being rallied to walk out of classes in protest against tuition increases and legislative cuts in higher education programs. The Vancouver Columbian reported on the plans Monday, noting organizers’ hopes that 500 students would participate just at Washington State University’s branch campus in Vancouver.

Not exactly the social consciousness-raising and peace protests of the ’60s, so the turnout isn’t likely to be a definitive answer regarding modern students’ commitment to political mobilization.

But while it’s always encouraging to see young people engaged in the democratic process, playing hooky from noon to 2 may not be the most effective method they could have chosen. Astute legislators may ask whether a program with enough wiggle room to tolerate two squandered hours really warrants protection from budget tightening.

That, of course, is the problem. The economy is sour, the state budget is strained and all aspects of public programs are under pressure to make sacrifices. Nobody dislikes it any less than the students do, but the pain must be shared.

In other words, a student protest – especially one in which the protesters voluntarily forfeit what they presumably are defending – is not needed to persuade state legislators that students are hurting. By the same token, if the walkout turns out to be a bust, the decision-makers in Olympia should not misinterpret it as willingness to absorb more program reductions or tuition hikes. It would just be a reflection of students’ general seriousness about being in the classroom and getting an education.

Spearheading this well-intended but misguided strategy is the nonprofit Washington Student Association, on whose Web site the walkout is described as a response to the Legislature’s budget-balancing efforts a year ago:

“Last year students saw unprecidented disinvestment in our education, reductions in financial aid eligability, and massive tuition increases.”

True, but we think the two hours would be better spent in the classroom, or at least using spell check.

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