02/19/2019

Faculty press for investment in community colleges

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Going to community college can turn a life around. For many people, these schools offer the only affordable, accessible pathway to higher education, which provides economic mobility and access to the middle class. More than half the students in the state of Washington attend community and technical colleges, and they’re an economic driver for the entire state.

AFT members on Lobby Day

And yet, community and technical colleges are underfunded. While they serve 60 percent of Washington students, they get only 40 percent of higher education funding. AFT Washington is on a campaign to fix that. (Re)Invest in Our Colleges, a coalition of unions, students and community organizations, is seeking $500 million in permanent funding for community and technical colleges over two years.

The coalition’s package of legislative proposals would improve counseling for students; enhance professional development for faculty and staff; provide a livable wage for all college employees; fund equity, diversity and inclusion offices and programs; and provide premium pay for faculty teaching incarcerated students. It’s a focused initiative that reflects much of the work the AFT and our affiliates are doing across the nation, advocating in statehouses and at the federal level to ensure public education is well-resourced and students and educators have the tools they need to teach and learn.  

Faculty and staff

If successful, ROC would have a huge impact on faculty and staff. At present, 40 percent of classified staff earn 25 percent less than market value salaries, and faculty and exempt employee salaries lag at least 12.4 percent behind peer states in the same field. The majority of faculty are adjuncts who frequently work at multiple colleges, trying to cobble together enough classes so they can pay for rent and food.

“These are the people that are guiding our students, that are teaching our students, that are supporting our students every single day,” said Kristina Pagosian, student body president at Tacoma Community College, during testimony before a legislative committee. “When we support faculty, we are in turn supporting our students, because we are attracting and retaining the quality instructors that give our students a quality education.”

Counseling

Besides faculty salaries, ROC is pushing hard for more counselors. Currently the counselor-to-student ratio is an eye-popping 1,900 to 1—but counselors are often the lynchpin that keeps students in school and on track to graduate. Eduardo Alcantar, a Spokane Community College student, knows this first-hand. He managed to leave a life in a community plagued by gangs and drug-related crime to start college, but dropped out after one quarter. When he finally returned, he told legislators, three years had passed. He met with a counselor as soon as he returned, and “that one appointment alone gave me a path to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Now I’m going to graduate and move on to a four-year university.”

Alcantar’s story won’t be possible for other students unless schools have the counselors and resources they need. “The faculty and staff of our colleges have been making do, educating and supporting our communities and our students, and now we are asking the state legislature to help realize the potential of our state,” the ROC website reads. “We help thousands of our neighbors achieve their goals each year—and those are the ones that can afford the increased tuition—imagine what we can achieve with a fully funded system?”

Advocacy

AFT Washington members are fanning out across legislative offices in Olympia Feb. 18 to share their proposals with lawmakers. It’s just one way members are reaching out to help improve their schools: In the months ahead, they’ll also be writing letters, making calls, signing petitions, wearing T-shirts and buttons promoting the campaign, and sharing information and support on social media.

“Community and technical colleges are a priority for Washingtonians, who understand they provide a host of benefits to students and the broader community,” the (Re)Invest platform page explains.  “We know that post-high school education is necessary in today’s job market, and that CTCs provide a critical path to that additional education. So why are we shortchanging our students? Our campaign seeks a level of funding truly reflective of the important role CTCs hold.”

[Virginia Myers]