Special Edition: Free Students, Free Teachers

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Welcome to a special edition of Tabs Open. The regular ordered list will still come Wednesday, but I wanted to share some thoughts with you about an important bit of recent news, if you’ll indulge me. 

In the last week, you’ve probably caught some snippets of political news regarding Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to lessen or eliminate a whole bunch of student loan debt. I won’t get into the weeds on that one here, but as this broader idea dovetails so nicely with another redistributive educational proposal, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bill to make 4-year college free, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you on why these plans matter to those of us who work in higher education. In order to do that, though, let me first walk you through a few things about life in the state of Washington and the city of Seattle. 

Walking Out

Two weeks ago, Seattle Central College faculty, staff, and students walked out for a full day. As the Seattle Times reported, this walkout was part of a larger regional push to get the state of Washington to commit to its community and technical colleges. Pay for faculty at these colleges in Washington lags 12% behind what instructors in comparable states receive; tuition hikes of several percent have been proposed statewide, too.

What’s made Washington state, and the Seattle area in particular, such a difficult place to be a community college teacher or student? It’s the way our economy’s organized.

A Haven for the Wealthy

The state of Washington has no income tax. Actually, we have the most regressive tax structure of any state in the union, factoring in our 6.5% sales tax (which jumps to 10.1% in Seattle). It is no accident that Amazon is headquartered here; really, they’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere better in America to go for obscene profit-making. Efforts to impose an income tax are regularly beaten back in the Republican-controlled state legislature, and even in Seattle, city of such liberal repute, the push to tax Amazon a pittance was recently crushed after a promising start.

All of this is to say that it is extremely complicated to fund any project of civic good around here. More often than not, the costs of public works are either absorbed by corporations in exchange for opportunities to make a profit (check out the Uber wait time screens at our downtown bus stops, shown below), mitigated by ever-increasing property taxes and levies (the kind of shit that helps suburban homeowners transform into Alex Jones-style libertarian psychos), or passed on to the poorest among us through punitive measures (like our “sweetened beverage tax,” which jacks up the price of a 2-liter soda but doesn’t touch a caramel Frapuccino). It’s fitting, really: Marx often returned to the idea that capitalists must and will pass on as many of their costs as possible to their laborers. We have a proof of concept being applied statewide here in Washington. 

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Patchwork Problems

To achieve any measure of public good that isn’t beholden to shareholders or come with strings attached--education, healthcare, housing--we need to impose taxes on income and wealth. It is not conceptually difficult to describe where the money to fund such programs would come from: you stop the blood-from-a-stone approach of turning poor people upside down and taking the coins that fall out of their pockets, and you begin requiring that those who have made their money on the backs of others pay significant portions of that money back into the public trust. 

One of the reasons I care so deeply about this idea is that it’s easy to think abstractly about what a free college experience might mean for a whole bunch of different kinds of people, but I get to see it in practice every day. The program that I’m the instructor for at Seattle Central College, called Learning Center Seattle, is a GED program for 16-21 year-olds who have dropped out of a local high school. Importantly, it’s free of charge for those students, and if they meet our program requirements and earn their GED through our program, they also qualify to have their associate’s degree paid for at the local community college of their choosing. Tuition, books, the works. 

But right now, LCS is a sort of chimera, making this free education possible via city funding, county funding, state funding, grant money, and the like. If this kind of patchworking seems both excessive and precarious to you, it’s because your instincts are good--it is. There’s far less security in this model than there could be if public colleges were cost-free, funded through state and federal revenue with no need for corporate partnerships or multiple hoop-jumping yearly audits. 

And make no mistake: corporate partnerships abound. At our college-wide kickoff last fall, it was announced that Seattle Central’s medical assistant program was getting sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, a titan of the healthcare industry and, unsurprisingly, a staunch opponent of Medicare for All. This is less a condemnation of Seattle Central and more a sad commentary on what measures must be taken when a place is designed to eliminate the possibility of public goods. 

 The Rub

All of this anxiety could be mitigated, if not outright eliminated, by the imposition of federal programs that take the ability to keep screwing over the poor and working class out of the hands of the states. 

A guarantee that our programs would stay socially funded in perpetuity would free up our talented staff to do a lot of good with the hours they typically spend doing arcane bureaucratic bullshit. It would allow for our medical assistant trainees to learn about healthcare provision that advances the notion of our health as a collective issue, rather than as something that happens on the way to billing. It would, importantly, pay college instructors (especially adjuncts and part-time faculty) enough money to actually live in the same city where they work, and draw in a pool of faculty that more closely resembles the student body it hopes to teach. (That last bit rings especially true in Seattle, where community college faculty would need to make an additional $37,000 per year to match the spending power of a faculty member in one of the state’s southern counties, where the cost of living is reasonable.) 

At a macro level it is almost hard to imagine what a few generations suddenly unburdened by the debt they’ve been drowning in might do with themselves. It is hard to know how many more students might choose college, knowing that the decision to invest in themselves won’t end up costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars over the rest of their lives. 

It is no accident that last year's historic strike wave--the biggest in the U.S. in more than 30 years--was catalyzed by and defined by teachers. Despite our more pernicious American myths, this is simply a job for most of us, even when we are paying out of pocket for school supplies or making sure our students don’t go hungry. We have the resources necessary to give students at all levels the education they deserve. With it should come an investment in the teachers who do that educating.