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Community college part-timers worry about losing more ground

A bill in the legislature could signal that lawmakers are backing away from dealing with the part-timers' longstanding concerns about low pay.

In recent years, community colleges' part-time faculty members have carried an increasing share of the teaching load. It's not always the best arrangement, because in some ways they don't become as much a part of the learning community as their full-time colleagues. And the part-timers don't have the same academic-freedom protections. But colleges save money by shifting the load.

For more than a decade, the state has tried to create greater equity in pay between part-timers and full-timers. Almost all of the progress has come because the legislature has pushed the issue, gradually taking steps that have raised the pay for the part-time faculty to an estimated 60 percent of what full-time teachers receive.

That's quite an improvement from the 1990s; in a recent op-ed, part-time faculty advocate Keith Hoeller said the figure then was "only 40 cents on the dollar compared to full-time faculty teaching the same number of courses."

A bill that is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Higher Education Committee would appear to be, at best, a timeout in the gains. The measure, HB 1631, made it out of the legislature on almost a party-line vote, with Democrats largely lining up in support of a proposal sought by the state units of both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Washington Education Association.

For years, the unions have wanted community-college faculty to receive specific money from the state for annual increments based on years of service, as practiced for other state employees. The unions have a point there, and HB 1631 would set up a system for faculty increments, at least in years when the state provided money.

But there may be pitfalls arguing for the change at a time when the public is increasingly skeptical of some longstanding arrangements for taxpayer-funded positions. In a state blessedly free of Ohio and Wisconsin's attacks on public employees' bargaining rights, even union-friendly politicians might have been expected to be a bit more cautious than most House Democrats about expanding guarantees.

Hoeller believes the bill would wind up widening the pay differences among faculty, since most colleges don't have any experience-pay systems for part-timers now. But he says the measure could be amended to help part-timers. On its website, the AFT does address the issue of part-time faculty, saying in essence that this is not the time to pursue something that is "admirable" but so expensive as forcing colleges to have similar experience-pay steps for all faculty.

A representative from the state Board for Technical and Community Colleges testified against part of the bill that seems to invite colleges to bargain the increment increases even when they don't receive specific funding from the state. The bill would essentially invite the colleges to fund the increases with students' tuition, which, of course, has been rising to help keep the colleges afloat at a time of increasing demand and falling state support.

State history ought to provoke Senate questions. It has taken since the 1990s to bring part-time pay up to where it is. A bill that addresses community-college pay without facing the part-time issue forcefully is something that could make legislators eager for assurances that the measure works for everyone, including the colleges that will face big cuts in the upcoming budget.

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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