Following Saturday's town hall in the 43rd district, House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43) sat down with students from the University of Washington—who had shown up in full force to make the case for higher ed funding—and deflected their assault by laying out a “How To” guide to save the UW, which faces serious financial problems this year.
The University has been on a steady decline in state funding for years, with a 7.3 percent decline in public baccalaureate funding over the past ten years, leading students to point out that it's not just the current economy that’s hurting the UW. At the same time, the cost of attending the University has gone up disproportionately to inflation—it went up 14 percent last year an $875 increase on average and it's going up 14 percent this year, leaving many students struggling with multiple jobs to keep up.
“When I was growing up, I could easily work my whole way through school on one job, students now are working two or three jobs and sometimes that’s still not enough,” says one UW alum.
Add to that: Last year’s 26 percent budget cut from the legislature, (one of the largest cuts to a University in the country); the upcoming tuition hikes—the Senate passed a bill and sent it to the House that takes tuition authority away from the state (where legislators might feel some accountablity to students) and gives it to the University—and the UW's accessibility to middle and low income families is on shaky footing.
According to Chopp, one of UW’s first tasks should be attracting community support, advertising the University’s place as the number one employer in the Seattle area. “You have to talk about the number of jobs created [and] the innovation from those jobs. They [Seattle residents] want jobs and opportunities,” Chopp said.
Next on the Speaker’s list was UW leadership’s salaries. Ask any student on the UW campus and you’ll get an opinion on UW President Mark Emmert’s six figure salary. Speaker Chopp explained that whether a pay cut on those salaries makes a direct difference on the University’s budget problems is irrelevant, it’s about perception. “It becomes an issue around the state, you want to take my money to pay for that salary?” noted Chopp.
To President Emmert’s credit has agreed to a 5 percent cut on his base salary of $620,000. However, that doesn’t include his deferred salary of $250,000, $23,000 in retirement pay, and $12,000 in car and housing allowances.
Student advocacy, if done right, also has a huge impact at the state level, Chopp said. The student push for changes to the tuition bill won an amendment by Seattle Sen. Ed Murray (D-43) saving funding for the State Need Grant. (The work study program, the only aid offered to graduate and professional students, is still up in the air.)
“If you ever wonder if any of this makes a difference, it does. The stories of their [students’] own personal family life is very compelling, that solidified support for the State Need Grant,” Chopp said. He went on to explain the need for student advocates to be compelling, as well as have specific examples of why their funding is important. “The State Need Grant was funded in large part because three of them [students] spoke in front of the entire caucus and gave exact reasons why they needed that [the need grant,]” Chopp said.
Governor Gregoire's revised budget also saves the Need Grant, and in fact, when Gregoire gave her State of the State speech in January, she pledged to restore the Need Grant and pulled a "Bill Clinton"—calling attention to Need Grant recipient, Janel Brown, in the audience and telling her story.
But strategic marketing, public relations, and advocacy won’t be enough to stop future cuts. Advocates and activists can only do so much. At some point the legislature has to do something.
Chopp agreed and pointed at one legislative fix that's in play to create new revenue. Currently on the roster in Olympia is Puyallup Senator Jim Kastama’s (D-25) lottery bill, which would redirect state lottery revenue to financial aid programs for higher education. Currently, funds from the lottery are directed to K-12 construction projects, which Chopp didn’t believe pulled community members’ heart strings, “not that many people are going to go to the lottery store because of school construction.” But the idea that a little gambling could give a child a chance at an education? Chopp thought that might do the trick, especially with a slogan he suggested: “Take a chance, give a chance.”
Georgia saw an increase in lottery spending from $20 per person to $90 per person after moving funds towards education. However, as Chopp mentioned, Georgia doesn’t have the casino industry of Washington.