Wisconsin Democrats will press budget panel to fund two years of free college education

By Pat Schneider, The Capital Times 

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said she and other Democrats will be advocating for some $500 million in additional investment and two years of free college education when the Joint Finance Committee takes up funding for the University of Wisconsin Thursday.

“If Republicans aren’t interested in that, that weakens their budget significantly,” said Shankland, a member of the Democratic minority on JFC.

Shankland spoke during a media call Wednesday organized by the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin in support of the Fund the Freeze campaign, which calls on legislators to restore $210 million to the UW System budget in each of the next two budgets to pay for an ongoing freeze of UW tuition.

She and Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay, and Jill Billings, D-LaCrosse, spoke about the need to restore revenue lost through a six-year tuition freeze to UW campuses in their districts.

They spoke of smaller faculties, fewer classes and longer time to graduation — meaning students pay more for a college degree and get started later in their careers. Genrich said that without more funding to update programming, graduates will not be able to compete in a 21st century workplace. Billings pointed to a study putting Wisconsin last in the nation in business startups and asked: “Why not fund the entity that helps generate them? It’s a great bang for the buck for taxpayers.”

Democratic legislators heard more concerns from their constituents following the $250 million cut to the UW System in the 2015-2017 budget than in response to almost any other issue, Shankland said.

And the damage done by those cuts is done, she said. “The faculty who left aren’t coming back — they’re in the private sector. The research being done in so many critical fields — you can’t get that back when faculty leave and take those federal grant dollars with them.”

“The Democrats have a very strong interest in ensuring that this budget is equitable for education — from public schools all the way up to technical colleges and higher education,” she said.

“If you can’t even restore the cuts, which I would argue this budget doesn’t make a dent in — that’s a huge issue for not only students but for workers and for employers and for the economy,” Shankland said.

The JFC last week rejected a Democratic proposal to make technical colleges tuition-free. The proposal would have cost $545 million over the course of the 2017-19 budget.

“Free college? News flash for you: Bernie Sanders lost. We don’t just get things for free in this country. We work for them," said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, last week. Nygren is co-chair of the JFC.

During a year-long campaign, some 1,500 UW students, faculty, staff and other citizens of Wisconsin have signed on to a call for legislators to “fund the freeze” by providing money to make up for lost tuition revenue, AFT said.

“For too long, disinvestment from one of the nation’s best public university systems has compromised the quality of instruction and student services,” said Jon Shelton, assistant professor at UW-Green Bay and vice president for higher education at AFT-Wisconsin.

Dan Strouthes, an associate professor of anthropology at UW-Eau Claire, said that accepting more students to collect more tuition revenue at that campus has lowered its admission standards and academic reputation.

And despite the freeze, tuition in the absence of adequate state support remains high, forcing students to work longer to pay it, Strouthes said. “That means the quality of their work in the classroom has suffered. There are only 24 hours in a day,” he said. That, in turn, makes them less competitive in the job market, as well as in applying for graduate school and financial assistance, Strouthes said.

Voters care about education funding, Billings said.

“In my district, education is clearly a top issue for constituents,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of concern expressed about UW funding and keeping it a quality educational institution as it has been historically. I will absolutely be paying close attention and advocating on this portion of the budget.”