An estimated 500 students attended the rally organized by APSCUF at the state capitol in Harrisburg Monday to protest cuts to state higher education funding. Students from each of the 14 PASSHE schools gathered on the stairs of the rotunda, chanting “pass the budget” and holding signs which read “united we stand, underfunded we fail.”
Featured speakers included the chancellor of the PASSHE system, Frank Brogan, President of APSCUF, Kenneth M. Mash, and Rep. Mike Hanna of Clinton County. Students were then given the floor. They spoke in front of the assembly to the cameras about personal experiences with student debt and reiterated the message that higher education is a “human right.”
Funding for higher education was cut by 18 percent in 2011 and has been flatlined since. Several PASSHE schools plan to go to a “per-credit tuition,” which could mean a 25 percent increase in student tuition.
The rally was organized in light of the budget impasse. Pennsylvania’s budget is 246 days overdue on Thursday. There is a new budget proposal, which would combine this year and next year’s budget into an 18-month plan.
A group of EE reporters sat down with Hanna after the rally to talk about funding to higher education and the grid-lock in the House.
EE: Why did you think it was important to come to this rally?
MH: “Over 50 percent of students in the PASSHE Schools come from the host county or the surrounding areas. Most of the students at Lock Haven are my constituents.
The state system has a mission statement that we are to provide a quality education at an affordable price. I’m on the PASSHE board of governors and part of our charge is to make sure we carry out that statement. When state appropriations go down, our mission is compromised. The quality of education is challenged because class sizes get bigger, opportunities are lost, programs are cut back or put in moratorium and tuition goes up.”
EE: What is prolonging the impasse?
MH: “It’s really not hard to put your finger on. On Dec. 22nd, we had the opportunity to pass a compromise budget. And, you know, everybody recognizes that there has to be some compromises. The governor said he wanted an 11 percent increase for higher education because that increase would mean that over a two-year period, we would restore the cuts that Governor Corbett made. Comprises had to be made because the Senate and the House are controlled by Republicans.
Ultimately we came around to a budget that would have had only a 5 percent increase. So instead of restoring it over two years, we would be restoring cuts over a 4 year period. Not what I wanted, not my first choice, but clearly it was a compromise and something I was prepared to support. When you ask ‘who is responsible for it not happening’ on Dec. 22, after we passed it on second consideration, it was the Speaker of the House [Rep. Sam Smith,Punxsutawney]
One person out of 253 legislators pulled the plug and said you’re not going to vote on this on third and final consideration. You’re not going to get the opportunity to end this budget impasse and he pulled the plug and said ‘no vote’ and sent everybody home. So there’s clearly the obstacle to getting this done, it’s the Republican leadership in the House.”
EE: Are you supporting the 18 month combined budget plan?
“I can be very supportive of that, depending on what it looks like. But, yes, as long we build on what we had agreed to: the framework that was agreed to last fall that had the 5 percent increase for higher education. As long as we’re close to that, and we’re building on that, and looking forward to next year, and as long as we accept our responsibility to pay for this. What the Republicans keep sending the governor is not paid for. They keep saying ‘well, we don’t need to do anything about taxes’. But everyone who has looked at this- Pennsylvania had been through five credit downgrades because they keep refusing to raise the revenue we need to pay to pay our bills.
Everyone who has evaluated the budgets we are looking at, has concluded that this year alone will have about half a billion dollar deficit. By ‘everyone’ I mean independent agencies, everyone, even the Republican Appropriations Chair said that. And, worse yet, next year, they’re talking about a deficit close to two billions dollars if we don’t do something about this revenue shortfall. So, that’s the number one thing we have to get them to accept, and as long as they’re willing to accept responsibility, we will put up the majority of the votes. The Democrats will put up the majority of the votes and we put up the majority of the votes on Dec. 22. Let’s just get this done, they have to shoulder their share of the responsibility. We can’t keep telling Pennsylvanians that they’ll have a budget that isn’t paid for.”
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EE: What needs to be done to restore funding to higher education?
MH: “In the last three decades it’s gone from a student share of 25 percent and a state share of 75 percent to the exact opposite. Now students’ tuition is paying close to 75 percent of the cost of higher education and the state is only subsidising 25 percent. And that’s just plain wrong. The system is titled the state system of higher education. We are a state-owned public system of higher education and we should at least shoulder half of the cost to justify the fact that we call it the state system.
Our obligation is to make higher education obtainable and affordable for people who ordinarily couldn’t obtain it. That’s what public higher education is about. So we have to reverse the direction it’s been going the last several decades, which has got us to this point where students are shouldering 75 percent of the cost. The first thing we have to do is reverse the 20 percent cut and get back to where we were just five short years ago. If we can get there, and then continue the reinvestment, there’s actually a bi-partisan study commissioned by the legislature and approved by Gov.Corbett that was done of public higher education that said that we had to start reinvesting in higher education.
If you look across the country, all of the states in 2007-2010 got hit very hard by the last recession, and at the time of those hits, all the states cut back their investment in higher education. But here we are in Pennsylvania in 2016 still refusing to reinvest, while other states have already started because they recognize the importance of higher education. So it is achievable, it’s not a pipe dream to say that we can get back to a point where at least 50 percent of the cost is shouldered by the state government.
What’s becoming very clear it me is that most Pennsylvanians don’t see what a crisis we are in. You are in the PASSHE system, and we need [students] to convey to people in this building that this is a crisis. Pennsylvanians have to understand that this budget impasse is not acceptable, we can’t go forward with two thirds of a budget, we have to complete this budget and we have to have a full year’s budget and we have to have a reinvestment in education and we have to turn the corner from where we’ve been.”