BURLINGTON — The American Federation of Teachers Vermont on Monday called for a major increase in state spending on higher education.
The union, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO and represents college educators and health care workers in Vermont, said that within 10 years the Legislature should fund more than half of the tuition costs at the University of Vermont and the state college system. The state currently pays about 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, supporters of the plan said.
At a news conference at AFT-VT headquarters in Burlington on Monday, the union also expressed its support for the unionization of early educators and paid sick days for all workers.
Those goals await a Legislature that already faces a $70 million budget when it reconvenes next month.
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said last year was a “banner year” for unions when lawmakers pushed through the state’s “fair share” bill and passed legislation allowing home care workers to unionize.
“We had some real success stories,” Baruth said Monday.
Deficits, however, are nothing new, Baruth said.
“Each of those years I have been in the Legislature, that gap has been part of the rationale why we can’t do this or why we can’t do that,” the Senate majority leader said. “In a budget situation like we have – in a lingering great recession – what people will need more than anything is help with their bottom line.”
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, will join Baruth this session to lead the push for union legislation. Both were recipients of awards for their work for unions last year.
The federation is proposing a huge increase in state higher education funding over the next 10 years, at which point the state would fund about 51 percent of state tuition costs.
S.40, currently in the House Education Committee, will set up a study committee to find sources of funding for the Vermont State Colleges and the University of Vermont.
A study committee bill might sound like a shoo-in, but the bill would also commit the state to return to 1980 levels of funding higher education at 51 percent. Currently, the state pays about 8 percent of UVM’s tuition and 12 percent of VSC’s tuition.
“So what we have seen in recent years is a huge cost shift onto the backs of students and families,” said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, in a phone interview Monday.
Pollina said the state is not in compliance with its own law that states higher education should be “supported in whole or in substantial part with state funds,” according to Title 16.
“I’m not saying anybody is going to file a lawsuit against the state colleges, but it is an interesting idea,” he said, referencing previous Act 60 lawsuits on public school financing. “We’ve dug a hole that’s so deep that nobody seems to have the courage to start talking about how to get out of it.”
He said lawmakers must fix what they created.
“We only have ourselves to blame,” Pollina said. “I think this is definitely a priority.”
During the AFT meeting, Baruth said money could come from the state’s correctional system.
“I think it is $140 million for Corrections and $85 to $90 million for higher ed,” said Baruth, a UVM English professor. “That’s a society with its priorities distinctly out of whack.”
Decreased state appropriations for Vermont colleges, in part, has led institutions to offer fast-track degree programs aimed at cutting down the four-year academic archetype to reduce the cost of tuition.
Lawmakers last session also passed dual enrollment and “flexible pathways,” or early start, legislation that would cut down on the time it takes to earn a college degree.
Legislation that would give early educators collective bargaining ability, S.52, was introduced last session.
“I am committed this year to trying to see this bill make it through the Senate,” Baruth said. “I am committed, additionally, to other union legislation.”
Nan Reid, a teacher from Burlington, said early educators’ ability to organize has been a four-year battle led by women.
“Providers are forced to bear the burden of inadequate support,” she said.
She said Vermont should follow the path of 14 other states – most recently Massachusetts and Connecticut – to adopt early education unionization. She said early education is critical to a child’s educational development.
“Decades of experience and evidence show that one of the most effective ways to improve education and economic outcomes for all children is to provide high-quality early learning experiences,” she said.
PAID SICK DAYS
Mari Cordes, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, has been a nurse for more than 20 years. She said paid sick days are necessary for the health care system.
“It is good for people and it is good for business,” she said.
She said the federation is also committed to a single-payer health care system.
Vermont Early Educators United, United Academics, Vermont State Colleges Faculty Federation and Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals gathered at AFT Vermont headquarters on Monday with unions across the country for the National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education.
The Vermont National Education Association, the state’s major education union, also unveiled a legislative agenda for educators and tuition costs in Montpelier on Monday.
Correction: The current early childhood educators organizing bill is S.52, which was introduced last session. An original version of this article had that bill as H.97, that passed the House in 2011, but was not acted on by the Senate.