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March for Public Education

Remarks by Barbara Bowen

President, Professional Staff Congress/CUNY

May 3, 2003


Greetings from the 20,000 members of New York Cityís higher education union, the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY. Hundreds and hundreds of our members and students have joined the march today; we are proud to be in your company. Look around you: this is what power looks like. Todayís gathering is a lesson in power, but only if we do more than celebrate our victories. Celebration is important, but letís also make this the beginning of a peopleís movement to reverse the history of inadequate and unequal funding for education in this state.

Higher education has been the stepchild of education funding in New York State. Since 1990, state funding for the City University of New York, where we are professors and staff, has declined by half a billion real dollars. In any other state, CUNY would be a source of immense pride. The City University was a dream of a peopleís movement in the 1840s; it arose from a revolutionary vision that higher education should be free and open to allóit "To educate the children of the whole people"óas its founding statement said. But CUNY has been punished in budget after budget, and this yearís Executive Budget proposal was the most punitive of all.

The new budget passed by the Senate and Assembly makes historic restorations to CUNY. The legislators turned back proposals to gut the main student aid program, TAP; to reduce funding for our extraordinary community colleges; and to slice in half the vital opportunity programs for our neediest students. For all of this, we in the PSC commend them. And we thank you, especially activists in K-12 education, who stood with us and as we worked to make higher education a priority for this yearís restorations. Now the PSC will join with you as we support the efforts to keep this budget in place. We will support our legislators and resist every attempt to bully them out of a principled override vote.

But the victory for CUNY is incomplete. While the operating budget at CUNYís four-year colleges is restored in the new budget, the amount of state funding plummets by 82 million dollars. Whatís the secret? Students. The gaping hole in CUNYís budget, even after restorations are made, is to be filled by students. CUNY tuition, already so high that CUNY has been given an "F" for affordability in national rankings, is expected to rise by $950 a year. Thatís an increase of 30% for some of the poorest and hardest working college students in the nation. The last time tuition was increased, over 8,000 CUNY students were forced to drop out.

Eight thousand students losing their chance of a college education, and then another eight thousand next year who donít even think of trying for college, and then another eight thousand the year after that. Itís not an accident that thousands of New Yorkers will be deprived of the hopes for their lives that are impossible without a college degree. Itís not a fact of nature or an inevitable consequence of the stock market decline that thousands of New Yorkersómostly working class people and the poor, mostly immigrants and people of colorówill be deprived of a college education.

Thereís no escaping the conclusion that itís a policy, that New York State has not yet reversed a policy of hostility to public higher education. New York State is consistently 49th or 47th or 50th among the states in increases to higher education. Is that the policy we want? Donít get me wrong; important first steps have been taken in the Senate/Assembly budget, but even those steps just move us back to square one. When are we going to see advances in education funding?

And thatís what today is about. All I ever wanted to be in my life was a teacher, because I feel that teaching is one of the defining, human things we do. Teaching someone is like loving someone; a profoundly human thing. To make us fight so that we can teach each other, to ensure that inequities of race and gender and class will continue because of unequal access to this most basic of needsóand education is a need, not just a rightóis obscene.

What we learn from today is that we are strong enough to change the direction of this state. Letís make New York truly the education state. Letís start our own dream of public education, right here and right now. We know what we want for our children, our students and ourselves; letís have the courage to fight for it.