FY14 budget is a step forward for higher ed

The $33.6 billion fiscal 2014 budget signed by Governor Deval Patrick on July 12 marks a significant advance for public higher education investment in Massachusetts.

The compromise budget, hammered out by a six-member House-Senate conference committee, increases funding for the University of Massachusetts, the nine state universities and the 15 community colleges in the Commonwealth by $97 million.

The Legislature’s move prompted UMass, the state universities and the community colleges to hold the line on tuition and fees for the first time in 12 years. The additional funding put the brakes to years of declining aid to higher education, which led to higher debt loads for students and fewer resources for the state’s public campuses.

Education increases from pre-kindergarten through graduate school had been proposed in the governor’s original budget bill, known as House 1, reflecting considerable input from the MTA. Higher education spending won the commitment of Speaker Robert DeLeo in the House budget proposal, and the increases were agreed to by the Senate when a conference committee developed the final spending plan to be sent to Patrick.

The MTA strongly advocated for greater education investment throughout the process, with President Paul Toner urging members to contact their legislators in favor of the House funding levels in the final conference committee report.

While the budget reflects gains in higher education and other areas, it does not include approximately $2 billion in new revenue that would have been generated by plans to increase the income tax while holding down increases for low- and middle-income families and seniors. Proposals to generate that amount of funding were supported by both the governor and the Campaign for Our Communities, which included the MTA and many other organizations.

In another priority area, the budget does establish a special Commission on Higher Education Quality, Efficiencies and Finance, which the MTA supported along with the efforts to provide more resources for colleges and universities.

The MTA will have one seat on the commission. The purpose of the commission is to study the funding of the higher education system, look at staffing, including the use of adjunct faculty, and make recommendations for changes. The commission is very similar to one proposed in a bill filed by Senator Michael Moore in January.

In July, MTA members testified at a hearing before the Joint Committee on Higher Education on the need for more full-time tenure-track faculty in the public higher education system in Massachusetts.

The hearing came on the heels of an MTA report, “Reverse the Course,” by the association’s Center for Policy and Professional Practice, which found that only 28 percent of all classes taught at the state’s community colleges are taught by full-time professors. The rest are taught by adjuncts, who do not have the mandate, administrative resources or salaries to provide advising services to students.

Donnie McGee, a professor at Bristol Community College and vice president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, testified that the median salary for a community college professor is about $61,000, but an adjunct professor teaching a full load of classes earns only about $30,000 a year. Adjuncts also receive no health insurance or pension benefits.

Those testifying in favor of a bill to increase the percentage of full-time professors and offer benefits to adjuncts, An Act to Maintain Faculty and College Excellence in the Commonwealth (House 1086), noted that while they appreciate the Legislature’s increase in this year’s budget for public higher education, funding is still one-third lower than it was at its peak in fiscal 2001, when adjusted for inflation.

An effort to revive the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which had been adopted unanimously by the Senate, was not included in the FY14 budget. That legislation, An Act Reviving the Foundation Budget Review Commission (House Bill 457/Senate Bill 207), remains a top MTA priority measure. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 17.

The foundation budget has not been reviewed in depth for 20 years. The legislation is sponsored by the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Education.

Also included in the FY14 budget is a new special commission to study early education and care services. The MTA would have a seat on the commission.

Other MTA priority legislation includes:

An Act to Improve Quality in Early Education Centers (House 477/Senate 223). Establishes a process, through negotiation, for improving the quality of early learning and child-care services and expanding the opportunities for educational advancement for child care providers.

An Act to Protect the Integrity of Initiative and Referendum Petitions (House 627/Senate 332). Regulates the initiative petition process to limit shady practices and restore integrity and confidence in the ballot initiative and referendum system by establishing a process for guaranteeing a fair procedure for collecting signatures. Currently there are no regulations on overseeing individuals who are paid to gather signatures. The petition process is being threatened by groups utilizing a growing industry of paid signature gatherers. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18 before the Joint Committee on Election Laws.