April 01, 2014

Union advocacy on budget results in 'positive items' for higher ed

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT Communications

A strong and steady effort by NYSUT, in partnership with its higher education affiliates - United University Professions at SUNY, the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY and locals at the state's community colleges – has brought increased state aid to New York's public colleges and universities in the 2014-2015 budget.

Both affiliates characterized the higher education portions of the budget as positive, although both noted that public higher education in the state is still not adequately funded.

"State lawmakers responded to our call to increase state support for SUNY's state-operated campuses and to safeguard SUNY hospitals, and for that we are extremely grateful," said Fred Kowal, president of UUP, which represents 35,000 academic and professional SUNY faculty. "It's a step in the right direction toward closing the gap created by years of underfunding, but more needs to be done."

Barbara Bowen, president of the PSC - which represents 25,000 faculty and staff at CUNY - struck the same tone.

"NYSUT and PSC worked hard against the prevailing austerity politics to carve out some restorations for CUNY, and we appreciate the legislative support for that funding," Bowen said. "But overall, this year's budget actively undermines New York's public universities and their students, and Albany remains culpable for New York's growing economic inequality."

Among the highlights:

  • a $75-per-student increase in community college base aid;
  • a $7.6 million increase for the SUNY state-operated campuses – the first such increase in state support for SUNY since 2008;
  • restoration of $1.7 million in state funding for the ASAP academic support program for at-risk community college students at CUNY;
  • increases in academic opportunity programs at SUNY and CUNY;
  • removal from the budget of the governor's language that would have opened the door to the privatization of SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

An increase of $26.3 million to the Tuition Assistance Program - the first increase to this important program since 2001 - was another victory for students and working families. NYSUT has advocated for increased financial aid to students and for reform and updates of existing programs as a key component in its Quality Public Higher Education Initiative, so the increases in TAP aid and aid to academic opportunity programs at SUNY and CUNY are significant steps. NYSUT will continue to press for passage of the New York state DREAM act, which would give undocumented college students who were brought to the United States as children access to TAP aid.

While NYSUT's advocacy resulted in a number of important positive budget developments, activists for higher education and other progressive causes saw the overall spending plan as favoring the wealthy and the charter school industry at the expense of public schools and services. As a result, hundreds of people rallied outside of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's chambers Monday in a last-ditch protest of spending plan they called too lenient on the rich and too harsh on the poor. Among the protestors was Hunter College student Mateo Tavares, who came to the United States in childhood as an undocumented immigrant from Columbia, and who told the protestors that he will continue to fight for passage of the DREAM Act. Inability to pay for college has kept many undocumented college-age students out of school, he noted.

"We will be the future engineers, lawyers and doctors, but we need that education now," said Tavares.