By Tony McVeigh, Kentucky Public Radio
It was a small rally compared to previous years, with less than 100 students in attendance. But organizers say snow spoiled the original date and midterms were a factor this week. In his keynote address, Gov. Beshear wasted no time blasting proposed education cuts in the budget outline unveiled last week by House leaders. Beshear says rolling back two instructional days in local districts “is not a good idea.”
“Another idea floating around out here right now is to cut higher education two percent in each of the next two fiscal years,” said Beshear. “Another idea floating around out here is to have no capital construction on any college campus over the next two years.”
Beshear reminded students the cuts were not part of his budget plan, and urged them to send lawmakers a message.
You must step up, my friends,” said Beshear. “You and your friends on the college campuses throughout this state – you, the students, the faculty, the staff, the administration of our higher education institutions -must make your voices known.”
Next up was Finance Secretary Jonathan Miller, who tried to liven things up a bit with some cheerleading.
“I am Kentucky’s future!” coaxed Miller. “Let me hear you say it!”
“I am Kentucky’s future!” shouted the students.
Recalling huge rallies of previous years, when students were packed in tight – their cheers reverberating off the marble walls for all to hear – Miller warned budget cuts can mean higher tuition.
“And if the cut is really bad, potentially we might go back to the days of double-digit tuition,” said Miller. “That’s unacceptable to Gov. Beshear. That’s unacceptable to me, and I know it’s unacceptable to you as well. So, we need to have your voices heard! We need you to get to all your legislators and tell them, please spare higher education from the dramatic cuts.”
UK grad student Chris Crumrine’s listening. The student representative on the Council on Postsecondary Education says double-digit tuition increases in the middle of a recession would be unconscionable.
“I realize that institutions are all strapped,” said Crumrine. “But families are strapped, too. Students are strapped, too. And that size of a tuition increase in this current climate, I think, is asking a whole lot.”
Until lawmakers approve a budget, tuition rates remain a question mark. But Colton Jessie of Western Kentucky University hopes lawmakers are listening, because he says the state cannot cut its way to prosperity.
“There are many things at stake if higher education suffers another cut,” said Jessie. “And we need to see that a Kentucky education is a priority now and for our future. An educated Kentucky will work to create a better economy. An educated Kentucky will commit less crime, bettering our communities and lessening the burden on our expensive prison system.”
Chelsea Atwater got the final word. The Eastern Kentucky University pre-med student says several generations of her family have benefited from college educations, and she wants the same for all Kentuckians.
“As the student leaders of our respective institutions,” said Atwater, “I challenge each of you today to return to your campuses and hometowns and find creative ways to promote and demonstrate the value of a Kentucky education – creating a more fiscally sound, civically engaged, literate and healthy commonwealth for years to come.”
As the students filtered out of the rotunda and headed home, behind-the-scenes work on the state budget continued. But House leaders now say it may be the second week of March before they can move a new state spending plan to the Senate.