I hope 2019 will be the Year of the Community College. I also hope 2019 will mark the end to the assault on public education, including higher education.
After 34 years of teaching sociology, the last 20 at the award-winning Walla Walla Community College, I retired in December. I followed in my father’s footsteps. He taught sociology for over 40 years. Education was a centerpiece in our family.
For my father, in particular, it was life changing. My father was raised in a working-class family for whom college was not in the cards. Although he was largely a lackluster student in high school (preferring basketball), an exceptionally high score on a standardized test administered to boys in the senior class landed him an opportunity to enter the Navy ROTC program during World War II.
Perhaps more monumental, the passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944 hoisted nearly 6 million veterans, my father included, from working class to middle class with public funding for higher education and trades. It enabled him to pursue his passion for sociology, ultimately earning his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, unlocking his four-decade career as a professor.
In contrast to the experience of faculty at WWCC, my father and his colleagues saw their salaries more than double from the beginning to the end of their careers, creating a stable and solid base for retirement.
In my parents’ case, this provided the financial resources my father needed for the care he required in the late stages of Alzheimer’s before he passed away. Now, a decade after his death, my 92-year-old mother can afford the high cost of elder care in the loving and nurturing adult family home where she now lives. Regrettably, this is not the case for me and other educators at community colleges across Washington state, and especially WWCC.
WWCC has been acknowledged and awarded accolades as one of the top performing community colleges in the nation: The 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the 2018 Best Community College Award from BestSchools.org, and my own distinction as the 2018 Washington State Recipient of the NEA Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence. However, accolades don’t pay the bills.
What led up to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 coincided with an increasing assault on public education and educators, contributing to ever-shrinking funding for public education, including higher education.
Ironically, at approximately the same time, in 2000 Washington state voters approved the Washington Cost-of-Living Adjustments for Teachers, Initiative 732, which sent a clear message to our legislators to give, at a bare minimum, scant cost-of-living increases to public educators. However, more years than not, administrators and legislators have ignored that mandate, withholding over nine years’ worth of cost-of-living wage increases.
Coupled with even more years withholding state funding for professional improvement increments, the result is that WWCC faculty earn significantly less than the national and state average salaries for community college faculty. As I said, accolades don’t pay the bills.
A Dec. 9 Seattle Times editorial noted “the two-year college system has suffered the most from years of budget cuts. When lawmakers plowed more money into K-12, especially in teacher salaries, community and technical colleges mostly were left behind.” It further acknowledged that one of the top three legislative priorities requested by the state Board for Community and Technical College is “faculty pay raises to bring them in line with K-12 public school teachers.” The time has come.
In contrast to my father’s experience, WWCC faculty have little opportunity for advancement. According to the salary schedule in the current contract, the growth potential for a full-time faculty salary is a mere 30 percent across the span of one’s career. The difference from the bottom to the top of the salary schedule is just $15,000 without COLAs.
Despite our comparable professional service and experience, this compares with a more than 50 percent increase over the career of most K-12 educators in our state, still a far cry from the doubling that my father’s generation enjoyed.
However, for the majority of community college faculty who teach as adjunct instructors on a class-by-class, quarter-by-quarter basis, their salary remains essentially stagnant without voter-mandated COLAs.
WWCC’s national accolades are well deserved, but the time has come to pay the bills. The prospect of doubling one’s salary over the course of one’s career may have been buried with my father.
Yet without meaningful income growth potential, there is little incentive for excellence in teaching. Although I have nothing to gain personally now that I have retired, I nonetheless urge you to join me in calling on our state legislators to make community college funding a top priority in the next legislative session.
Make 2019 The Year of the Community College.
Susan Palmer was a sociology instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She retired in December.