Mass. Senate president targets free community college

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka has long called for investing in public education, and on Wednesday said the passage of a 2019 education funding reform bill often referred to as the Student Opportunity Act in her first year as president was among her "proudest accomplishments in this office." The law committed $1.5 billion in additional funding over a seven-year period toward the state's K-12 public schools.

During a speech delivered to her chamber after taking the gavel, Spilka pushed to ride the momentum of the Student Opportunity Act to pass a "Student Opportunity Plan," to invest in Massachusetts' youngest learners as well as continued learning beyond high school.

Spilka's announcement that she plans this session to pursue free community college for all students was met with applause in the Senate chamber.

"It's beyond time," she said. "Let's make it free."

Since the cost of providing community college education will remain, the focus will shift to how the Senate plans to pay for its proposal and how much it will cost.

Investing in public higher education and reducing the cost of getting a degree will help close the racial wealth gap in Massachusetts, the Ashland Democrat said, and build a more educated workforce to fill jobs in the state's innovation, health care and scientific industries.

"It is clear that we have, right here in this commonwealth, the people and the institutions we need to ensure the workforce of our future and to tackle the challenges that we face, if only we see this opportunity for what it is and we are brave enough to seize it," she said.

Spilka isn't the only one with her eyes on investments in public higher education. The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers, as part of a coalition that has deemed itself Higher Ed For All, started planning their offensive for increased funds to the state's community colleges, state universities and UMass schools in December.

Meanwhile, the state's Board of Higher Education plans to use this session to push for doubling the amount of state-funded financial aid for public higher education students to $400 million a year.

Spilka's expanded education goals come at a time when the sector might be about to tap into an unprecedented new funding stream following voter approval in November of a 4 percent surtax on the state's wealthiest residents to go toward public education and transportation investments.

Opponents of the surtax, called the Fair Share Amendment by supporters, argued throughout the election cycle this fall that there's no guarantee the additional tax revenue will go toward education and transportation because it is subject to legislative appropriation.


Spilka promised to use the funds as intended, while House Speaker Ron Mariano made no mention of the surtax in a speech to his chamber.

"As long as I'm Senate President, every last Fair Share dollar will go to new investments in transportation and education," Spilka said.



More from WBUR

Listen Live