The following is an excerpt of testimony delivered to the State Legislature on February 4.
Weeks before the pandemic hit last March, the Legislature was poised to make significant new investments in public higher education. Then the world changed. New York State moved to an emergency budget, and many of the initiatives of last spring were put on hold. But both houses of the Legislature, with your leadership, demonstrated last year that New York can make increased funding of CUNY and SUNY a priority. We urge you to build on that momentum in Fiscal Year 2022. And this year much more will be demanded of you. You have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the course of history in New York State – by restoring fair taxation and reversing the policies of austerity. On behalf of the 30,000 members of the PSC, I call on you to aim high.
Aiming high will mean passing substantial new revenue-raisers and refusing to accept that even the best case imagined in the Executive Budget represents success. New York State is structurally underfunded because of a failure to maintain truly progressive taxation. For CUNY, the state budget scenario that includes the full $15 billion in federal funds would mean a return to overcrowded classrooms, inadequate staffing, crumbling buildings and dangerously low student support. The budget the governor presented, assuming $6 billion in federal support, delivers major cuts to CUNY. And the state has been quietly cutting CUNY funding all year, under the banner of “withholding” 20% of funds and freezing raises.
The PSC joins the governor in the demand for $15 billion in federal funds to close the current budget gap, and we will work aggressively to support passage of the full $1.9 trillion federal relief bill. But I want to be clear: a return to pre-COVID fiscal “normal” would be devastating for CUNY. “Normal” was killing CUNY, and I would say was designed to kill CUNY, just as “normal” systemic racism was suffocating and designed to suffocate our students. The way to create a different future for CUNY and New York is to reject austerity and enact new investments.
The PSC calls on you to:
History shows us that at times of crisis governments must not be timid in their response. The current crisis, like the Great Depression, demands visionary solutions, not defensive austerity. We urge you not to waste that support.
The linchpin of the FY2022 budget must be increased revenue through fair taxation.
The members of the PSC call on you to pass the six revenue bills supported by the Invest in Our New York coalition. We urge you to refuse to pass a budget that fails to increase revenue substantially and restore progressive taxation. The wealth of the rich is created by working people. The rich and their corporations must not be shielded from paying their fair share. Make this the year in which you increase New York’s revenue, invest in a turnaround for CUNY and repudiate the “normal” that has been slowly crushing CUNY to death.
“Normal” has also been crushing Black and brown New Yorkers. The report recently released by The Center for an Urban Future provides devastating evidence that New York City already has gaping disparities in college attainment by race. “Just 20% of Hispanic New Yorkers, 27% of Black New Yorkers, and 45% of Asian New Yorkers hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 64% of white New Yorkers,” the report states. The disparities within neighborhoods are even more shocking. In Jackson Heights, Queens, while only 11% of Hispanic residents hold a bachelor’s degree, the rate is 58% for white residents. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, 71% of white residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 24.5% of Black residents and 14% of Hispanic residents. These disparities come at a time when the city’s economy is increasingly bifurcated, according to the report. The economy has produced “a large number of low-wage jobs that were accessible to individuals without a college credential and a smaller number of higher-wage jobs that mainly went to those with at least a bachelor’s degree.” The pandemic has made the trend worse.
New York City and New York State are clearly failing if the agenda is to support public education as a means to reduce inequalities of race, ethnicity and class. This year’s budget provides an opportunity to take an important step in creating a more just and inclusive economy; that step should start with CUNY.
The reasons for inequalities are complex, and they cannot be solved without systemic change. But many could be dramatically relieved by ensuring that CUNY is free, fully funded and a welcoming intellectual home for New Yorkers of all races and ethnicities. This year, the PSC, as part of a student-labor-community coalition, has developed groundbreaking legislation that will go a long way toward addressing such inequalities: The New Deal for CUNY. The legislation, which will be launched tomorrow, demonstrates that there is a compelling and fiscally sound path to making CUNY tuition-free while at the same time restoring staffing and student support to the levels any students need. Join us tomorrow at the launch – but more important, join us in reimagining what the nation’s largest urban university, the people’s university, could be.
A GENERATIONAL EFFECT
I am proud to join my colleagues from New York State United Teachers and United University Professions to urge that now is the time to fight for fully funded public higher education. If the public colleges and universities are forced to remain on their current starvation diet, New York’s economic recovery will be slow, partial and racist. The priorities enacted in Albany and city hall this year and next will set a generational course for the state and for CUNY. History will judge us by how we used the power we had in this moment, however limited, to respond to the crises of public health, economic collapse and systemic racism. I am calling on you – and on all of us – not to fail. One sure way to do that is to embrace the proposals for new revenue and support an investment that empowers CUNY to address racism and inequity.
Demand is growing across the state for an end to the unfair tax system that left New York, the first epicenter of the virus in this country, fatally unprepared for a public health crisis – which also became an education crisis, a housing crisis, a transportation crisis. PSC stands in support of the six revenue bills being advanced by Invest in Our New York. Together, they would end tax breaks for the rich and raise approximately $50 billion a year for New York.
High up on the list of needs being embraced by the entire coalition supporting the package of six bills is $2 billion for CUNY and SUNY; there is recognition throughout the state that investment in public colleges and universities is essential to the well-being of the entire population. The resources that would be freed up by the new revenue bills would provide a lifeline for CUNY and our students, not only restoring academic programs, but supporting the services CUNY students rely on – essential housing, health and nutritional programs (15% of students reported that they were often or sometimes hungry in a 2018 survey).
Tomorrow will see the launch of landmark legislation sponsored by Senator Andrew Gounardes and Assemblymember Karines Reyes: The New Deal for CUNY. The PSC invites you to join these legislators as cosponsor and to pass the legislation this year for a five-year phased-in transformation of CUNY’s ability to serve New York. The New Deal for CUNY redirects current TAP funding and makes CUNY tuition free; it establishes minimum staff-to-student ratios for mental health counselors, academic advisors and full-time faculty, while professionalizing compensation for adjunct faculty; and it supports the call for a five-year capital plan that would make CUNY’s buildings safe, capacious and sustainable.
Since 2016, the PSC has worked in coalition with student, community and labor groups through the CUNY Rising Alliance. CUNY Rising, which was formed in 2016 and immediately engaged in the effort to defeat a proposed $500-million cut in state funding for CUNY, has spent the years since that successful campaign developing a vision of what CUNY should be: a free university with enough faculty, mental health counselors and advisors to support and expand students’ aspirations for their lives. A university where students learn in appropriately sized classes from a body of faculty that reflects the diversity of the city and the student population. A university with 5,000 new full-time faculty positions, including targeted initiatives to increase racial diversity and create full-time job opportunities for current adjuncts. A university that sets a national labor standard for academia by mandating parity pay for adjunct faculty. A university where once degraded, crumbling buildings become leaders in sustainability. It is a vision of CUNY to be inspired by and to fight for.
Investment in CUNY is not charity; it is economic good sense. CUNY leads the nation in enabling low-income students to advance into the middle class and beyond. CUNY students pour millions of dollars every year into the tax base. Because the majority of CUNY students remain in New York after graduation and move into middle-income jobs, the investment of taxpayer dollars in CUNY is fiscally as well as morally responsible. Take one example. A recent report found that City College, in Harlem, provides a three-to-one investment for taxpayers. Every dollar of public money invested in City College generates three dollars in tax income. City College alone generates nearly two billion dollars in annual income for a ten-county region per year and 16,760 jobs. There are 24 other CUNY colleges, all with similar power to repay New York’s investment and transform the life-chances of millions of New Yorkers.
The Executive Budget hits CUNY hard. It cuts $28 million from senior colleges and $14 million from community colleges. CUNY cannot and must not be subject to these cuts.
Governor Andrew Cuomo released two plans to close the state’s $15 billion deficit. The first plan – the one detailed in the budget bills – assumes a $6 billion infusion of stimulus funding from Washington and closes the remaining gap with a combination of 5% across-the-board budget cuts and revenue-raisers, notably a temporary, refundable tax rate increase for extremely high earners, mobile sports gambling and marijuana legalization. The second plan would close the entire deficit with federal stimulus money.
Both budget plans would rob CUNY and the Black and brown communities it serves of the investment needed to help launch New York’s recovery from the pandemic and CUNY’s recovery from decades of racialized austerity. Even the plan based on $15 billion in stimulus aid to New York is a status quo budget that will leave CUNY starving. Under the Executive Budget plan that includes $6 billion in stimulus, the 20% “withholding” from CUNY would be partially restored. But the damage from the withholding has been done. Classes have been cancelled. Jobs have been lost. A 5% cut to the CUNY senior colleges starting in the fall of 2020 would continue into next year. Community colleges and other critical programs would also lose funding.
The governor’s proposed budget allows for tuition increases of up to $200 per year. The PSC strongly opposes this tuition hike. We call, instead, for a path to free tuition. Given the financial stress CUNY students are facing right now, another $200 per year increase, or additional fees, would force many to drop out.
The PSC urges the Legislature to restore the funding for CUNY detailed below, which is cut in the Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2022.
The Executive Budget would reduce funding for CUNY community colleges by $9.95 million, due to temporary enrollment declines during the COVID crisis. The CUNY Budget Request asks the state to restore these funds and freeze community college funding at its Fiscal Year 2021 level.
CUNY community colleges educate an even larger proportion of Black and brown students than the CUNY senior colleges. Community college students are more likely to have remedial academic needs, to have annual family incomes below $30,000, to be first-generation students, or to be supporting children. They are exactly the students who would have their lives upended by COVID, who would be most challenged by a shift to all online instruction and services.
Instead of cutting community college funding, the PSC urges that the base aid rate of funding for community colleges should be increased by a total of $500 per FTE (full-time equivalent): an increase of $250 per FTE to fund the needs shared by CUNY and the SUNY community colleges, and an additional $250 to fund the state’s share of the community college investments of the New Deal for CUNY. In addition, the formula for funding community colleges should be adjusted to set a minimum floor of state investment of 98% of the prior year’s funding.
CUNY colleges have been allocated more than $700 million in federal funds targeted at the massive needs created by the pandemic. More than half of these funds are available for institutional use, with the remainder specified for direct aid to students. The CARES Act, passed in June 2020 allocated $251 million in federal funds to CUNY colleges, with at least $118 million for student aid. CUNY reports that the student aid was distributed to 197,000 students in the fall. The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) passed by Congress in December 2020 allocated another $455 million, again with at least $118 million for student aid.
We are grateful for your efforts in advocating for federal emergency aid for CUNY as well as to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Schumer and Senator Gillibrand for their continued support securing additional federal funds. But now we need the Legislature to make certain that CUNY uses every dollar New York’s Congressional leaders fought for to ensure that students can continue their progress to graduation, and faculty and staff jobs are protected.
CUNY must be far more transparent about its use of the federal stimulus money. Quarterly reports posted online indicate that CUNY has spent about $33 million in institutional CARES Act funds. Why is CUNY continuing to hold the remaining $100 million in institutional CARES Act funds? How is the money to be spent? The Legislature has the responsibility to demand answers about the CARES Act and the new CRRSAA funds.
In an August letter replying to congressional representatives who demanded similar answers about the CARES Act and called for the restoration of adjuncts’ jobs, the CUNY Administration claimed to “have submitted a plan to the State that prioritized student support and mental health services, reimbursements to campuses for COVID 19-related costs such as refunds, and investments in online infrastructure and training. The plan has been approved by the State, but we decided to hold back the use of the majority of these funds until we conclude our budget process.”
Is that budget process now complete? All who care about CUNY, who care about accountable government, should demand the best use and a clear accounting of how the aid is being spent. We request that the Legislature require CUNY to publish robust quarterly reports that detail how federal stimulus funds have been spent, how much of the funds remain and in what accounts they are being held, along with details about how CUNY plans to distribute the funds.
The federal money must not be used only to offset budget cuts while course sections are cut, adjunct workers are laid off, class sizes are increased and student services are reduced. Federal funds should be used to keep courses open, allow students with small unpaid tuition debts to enroll and to rehire laid-off adjunct workers, restoring coverage to those who have lost health insurance.
This has been a year unlike any other, and the members of the PSC thank you for holding important hearings throughout the year, for being responsive to our calls, and for being willing to work with us to find solutions through government. Our union has responded to this catastrophic year by demanding more of ourselves and imagining how New York needs to be not just healed but transformed. We ask you to take that imaginative leap with us. We call on you to use your position in government as courageously as the original New Deal reformers used theirs. Whether we are in government or not, we get only a few chances in a lifetime to change history, and I believe this is one of them. The PSC urges you to take it.
Restore CUNY Funds Cut in the Executive Budget $42 million
- Senior College Operations $26.2 million
- School of Labor and Urban Studies $1.5 million
- CUNY Pipeline | Citizenship Now $270 thousand
Senior College Restorations Subtotal $28.2 million
- Community colleges held harmless against enrollment loss $9.95 million
- Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) $2.5 million
- Rental Aid $447 thousand
- Childcare Centers $902 thousand
Community College Restorations Subtotal $13.8 million