Shankland signs pledge to fight for university budget, better workforce investment

By Nathanael Enwald, The Portage County Gazette

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, signed a pledge Tuesday, Jan. 24, with University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) Faculty and Academic Staff Union representative Andy Felt and Student Government Association President John Peralta to urge Gov. Scott Walker to restore the UW System’s budget to a healthy level.

The “Fund the Freeze and the Cut” pledge-signing event also highlighted the impact that repeated budget cuts have on higher education opportunities for students as well as the secondary effects the cuts have on the business community.

Members of the campus faculty and academic staff union (Stevens Point Academic Representational Council – SPARC, AFT 6505), Shankland and Peralta said Walker needs to fund the tuition freeze of the past four years, as well as any future tuition cut, and increase state funding for higher education.

Money is a big part of the university’s ability to maintain not only its infrastructure, but also to stay current with its curriculum and the technology required to teach modern skills, Peralta said.

“I represent most of Portage County in the State Assembly, I’m beginning my third term and I’m on the Joint Finance Committee – which is the 16-member budget committee that makes most of the amendments to the budget before it goes to the Senate – and during my time on the Legislature I have only seen what I would call a trend toward divestment in higher education, not investment,” Shankland said.

“We have seen about $790 million taken away in cuts and loss to state aid in the past three budgets (to the UW System). So, as we begin the fourth budget of the Walker Administration, I think it’s really important to look at the fact that Wisconsin is investing its lowest amount, when adjusting for inflation, in the history of the UW System,” she said.

The recent cuts made to the UW System aren’t just absorbed by the universities through budget acrobatics, they translate to loss of jobs, the elimination of professorships and in some cases entire programs offered to students, Shankland said.

“They translate into higher ‘time till degree,’ so we see more and more bottlenecks on campus – not just at UWSP, but across the state – and what happens is, sure, students may be paying tuition that’s frozen, but then what happens when they have to stay an extra year at school as they wait for that one chemistry class, that one biology class or that one IT class they need to graduate,” she said.

The cuts also have impacts on the workforce and employers relying on the university to train skilled workers.

“At the same time, I’ve been hearing from employers across the state … who are saying the same thing we all know, they need skilled workers,” Shankland said. “So, I do not understand why the Legislature and the governor would historically divest from higher education while also claiming to invest in our workforce. In my opinion you have to do both.

“This ‘Fund the Freeze and the Cut’ is really about asking the state to commit to (higher education). If they’re going to freeze tuition or cut tuition, to actually fund the differential. Because as it stands right now, if they cut tuition without funding that same amount to the UW, they’re in effect cutting from the UW, they’re cutting courses, they’re cutting instruction, adding time to degree, adding student loan debt, taking away income students could have otherwise earned by graduation on time,” she said.

“Unfortunately, that’s not only going to lead to economic losses in our community in Stevens Point, but it’ll lead to more businesses saying, ‘we have a skilled workforce need, we have a skills gap,’” she said.

Wisconsin’s budget is $73 billion, and Shankland said she thinks students should get a slice of the money pie.

“There has been new money for tax breaks in each budget since 2011, if companies that take money while outsourcing jobs get tax dollars, why don’t our students?” she said. “I think that’s where the money needs to go. We need to take a smart look at the tax incentives that aren’t working, that aren’t creating jobs and instead the best investment we could make for our jobs and the economy is to invest in our students who work hard every single day and all they expect is a fair shot. It’s pretty simple.”