Students Demand Funding for Education

Category:  News
Wednesday, February 10th, 2016 at 11:26 PM
Students Demand Funding for Education by Emma Giering
Edinboro student, Malachi Schafer, speaks at the ‘Underfunded We Fail’ Rally in Harrisburg on Monday, Feb. 8. Thirty-six Edinboro students attended.

It was 5 a.m. The air was crisp and frigid. Students were carrying posters, adorned with phrases like, “Textbooks not tax breaks: Invest in our education,” written in obnoxious Magic Marker.

After walking to the Frank G. Pogue Student Center, a mass of students were huddling outside, eating donated breakfast sandwiches. By 5:30, the bus, filled with 36 students, was heading southeast to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties’ (APSCUF) “Underfunded We Fail Rally.”

The actual rally was planned for noon, but the pre-registered students from EU’s student body were permitted interviews with select senators and house representatives, including State Representatives Ryan Bizzaro and Patrick Harkins, along with State Senators Michelle Brooks and Sean Wiley.

The rally began almost as soon as students began to infiltrate the capitol building. Pooling on the marble steps of the rotunda, students from all 14 PASSHE schools began to collectively chant “fund or fail,” the adopted slogan for the APSCUF sponsored rally.

When the state system began in the 1980s, the universities received more than 60 percent of their funding from the Commonwealth. Now, about a quarter of the state system’s funding comes from appropriations. As state allocation has decreased, tuition and fees have increased. In the yetunfinished Pennsylvania budget, the universities are poised to receive flat funding.

The rallying was interspersed with keynote speakers such as Dr. Kenneth M. Mash, President of APSCUF.

“The burden on our students and their families keeps growing, and student debt is skyrocketing,” said Mash.

System-wide, state universities have lost hundreds of employees, and more than 100 programs have been discontinued since 2011. Many class sizes ballooned as remaining faculty members took on additional courses.

Mash introduced various individuals to speak to college students’ and faculties’ concerns regarding adequate funding,pensions and voter registration.

Frank Brogan, Chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), as well as Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack spoke to all sides, trying to unite parties over the mutually uncontroversial legislation of education.

Shouts of pride were rampant in between speeches as each individual school was acknowledged for its presence at the rally. State Senator Judith Schwank of District 11, a 1982 graduate of Penn State University, made an appearance as well, promising not to let students down, promising to keep “excellent education affordable.”

Mash introduced particular student representatives from select schools. Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s student government President Vince Lopez took the mic and looked to speak for all students when he said, “I want education to be funded properly, not just for my own benefit, but for my children’s benefit, for their children’s benefit, for your children’s benefit. Without an education you cannot expect us to succeed; you are setting us up to fail.“

The floor of the rotunda was then opened up for students to voice their concerns. Nearly everyone that could secure a spot gladly took to the podium and passionately shared personal anecdotes. “I had to consider dropping out during my last semester because I just couldn’t come up with an extra $3,000. I don’t know if politicians will ever know how hard it is to be a student in this era, to come so close and not cross the finish line,” one Kutztown student said.

“I’m the definition of a nontraditional student,” a West Chester student who was over the age of 25, a woman, a Republican and a veteran said. “The only thing I ever wanted in turn for fighting for my country was an education.”

“I’m not here today because I can’t afford college,” a Clarion University student said. “I’m here for my friends that are working three jobs to pay tuition, who can’t afford to take a day off to come and ask their elected officials to do their job,” he said as the crowd erupted in applause.

Edinboro students Tyler Jemetz, Edinboro’s student government finance director, Shaquan Walker, student member of EU’s Council of Trustees, and Kirsten Hall, a sociology major, represented the student voices of Edinboro in front of the 500 student assembly.

Each brought their own experiences in higher education to the discussion, with Jemetz disclosing an occurrence in which he had comforted a student who was sobbing who was not able to receive enough financial aid to cover college expenses. These stories, in variation, were a reoccurring narrative woven, inseparable from the heaviness of the event.

After the rally, students from all schools were encouraged to meet their respective representatives or senator. A handful of students from Edinboro University scheduled time with their legislatures in the weeks before the rally.

Though difficult to find the legislatures at an opportune moment, multiple groups were afforded the opportunity to meet with State Representatives Ryan Bizzaro and Patrick Harkins, along with State Senators Michelle Brooks and Sean Wiley. In fact, even Governor Wolf was spotted on the rotunda floor after the rally, mingling with the other protestors of the day — promedicinal marijuana activists for the SB03 bill.

Brooks was keen to discuss the perceived one-sided bias in media that casts the GOP as the sole entity blocking the budget from passing.

“I’ve been working closely with my colleagues and listening to the collective voice of my constituents. The bottom line is this, you can’t increase educational funding at the level Governor Wolf desires to without somehow increasing the taxes for everyone,” said Brooks.

“Go home and ask your parents if they want to pay a 21 percent income tax and see what they say.”

Brooks led students around the Senate chamber. With mahogany desks imported from Belize and rare green Connemara marble lining the chamber walls from Ireland, the room itself is as diverse as the people who inhabit it.

Students Tyler Jemetz, Kirsten Jackson and Brenden Kightlinger also secured interviews with staffers for Brooks. Before Brooks was able to meet with the aforementioned students, her executive director Chloe Zittle and Chief of Staff Christopher J. Yniguez welcomed the students into her office for preliminary questions where the concepts of privatization of liquor, pension reform and committees that Brooks chaired were discussed.

LaTosha Phillips, Edinboro graduate student in social work, secured a meeting with Wiley, who gave the group of students a tour of the Senate floor, notorious for its ornate gold crenelations and stately evergreen walls.

“He’s a Democrat, so he seems really pleased with the amount being sought on behalf of K-12 and higher-level education,” Phillips said.

The bus coming home was silent with the exception of the hum of the tires. There were a few whispers in the back of the bus on things of philosophical or sociological import. The sensory overload of the day, for the most part, seemed to have worn away at most. The shouts, the extravagant posters, the hundreds of stories debated and rehashed in full disclosure — it had certainly been a day fully lived.

Whether the student voices will influence the voting and legislative initiatives of legislators remains debatable. What’s important is that when future history books are written, there may be mention of a people who loved learning, who valued education so much that they would not silence their voices, who would not give up without a fight.

Emma Giering is the Voices editor for the Spectator.

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