Chanting “fight, fight, fight, fight, education is a right!” more than 500 NYSUT member activists, students and supporters, rallied together before the majestic backdrop of the state Capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase in early March.
Clad in hats, sweatshirts and T-shirts emblazoned with their SUNY, CUNY and community college alma mater, and waving colorful signs and placards, the rallygoers sent Albany a clear message: it’s time for New York state lawmakers to pass a new deal for public higher education.
“We have graduates from every part of the state here, we have legislators on our side, and we have big dreams — let’s get them done!” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, noting that since SUNY, CUNY and community colleges produce the workforce of tomorrow and drive our state’s economy, they’re a smart and long overdue investment. His voice raspy from days of activism and member engagement, and wearing a Brooklyn College bulldogs sweatshirt, Pallotta elicited cheers after encouraging rallygoers to shout out if they’d graduated from a SUNY, CUNY or community college. “What do you have to do if you want something? Fight!” he said.
Union activists traveled to Albany from across the state for NYSUT’s annual Committee of 100 lobby day. Members met with their state lawmakers to discuss a wide range of issues including the New Deal for Higher Education, which the late-morning rally highlighted. The New Deal for Higher Education would provide $1.44 billion in operating support for two- and four-year colleges and SUNY hospitals, a $267.2 million increase for student supports, such as counseling, mental health services and food assistance, and $3 billion to ensure students can earn degrees without incurring crushing loan debt.
Several lawmakers joined Pallotta on the Capitol steps to offer their support, including Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, higher education committee chair, who pledged to “stand with NYSUT in calling for increased funding for higher education in the 2023-24 state budget.” Sen. Shelley Mayer, senate education committee chair, and Sen. John Liu, chair of the New York City education committee, also committed to supporting a New Deal for Higher Education.
“SUNY desperately needs this aid to stabilize our campuses and our hospitals at a time when the state has a $8.6 billion surplus,” said Fred Kowal, United University Professions president. “We urge the governor and legislative leaders to make this the year to truly invest in SUNY.”
James Davis, Professional Staff Congress president, representing CUNY faculty and staff, said “Gov. Hochul and the Legislature can take their place in history, invigorate our workforce and economy and provide a better life for hundreds of thousands of CUNY and SUNY students by making this $4.7 billion commitment to New York’s two great, but long-underfunded public university systems.”
Making the rounds with lawmakers
Although the New Deal for Higher Education rally was a Committee of 100 highlight, activists also spent the morning visiting legislators' offices as regional teams to discuss other important issues. Angie Rivera, Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals president, was part of a nearly 20-member contingent from the Rochester area who met with Sen. Jeremy Cooney to advocate for additional Foundation Aid, a Tier 6 fix and community school funding. “My members must contribute more to get less in retirement and many can’t afford to stay,” said Rivera of Tier 6.
Anthony Andrews, Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals, was invigorated by his first Committee of 100 experience. “I’m learning how important it is for legislators to hear our voices.”
A group of North Country activists met with Assemblymember Matt Simpson to highlight the lack of funding for teacher centers, the need for charter school oversight, universal free school meals and other issues. Shawn Strack, Northern Adirondack Teachers Association, shared how one student purposely failed his class to qualify for summer school and a free lunch. Adam Schrader, president of the Salmon River Teachers Association, compared charter schools’ ability to pick and choose students to a public hospital rejecting hard-to-treat patients. “We wouldn’t support a hospital system like that, why do we accept that in education?” said Schrader.