A student coalition met with four Texas senators and two Texas House representatives on Monday to raise the Longhorn voice at the Capitol.
Students from groups such as Student Government, the Senate of College Councils and the Graduate Student Assembly formed the Invest in Texas coalition, a group that will lobby for higher education issues such as opposing budget cuts to higher education, supporting competitive insurance benefits and gun control on campus.
Chelsea Adler, Senate of College Councils president, said she and students Jimmy Talarico and Daniel Spikes met with senators and representatives on Monday to talk about the coalition’s platform and gauge their responsiveness.
“The meetings today have gone really well. Everyone has been really receptive to our ideas,” said Alder, a government and social work senior.
The group’s main priority is to keep budget cuts to higher education proportionate to the total amount spent on higher education, she said. Gov. Rick Perry’s $182.3 billion two-year budget plan, which will last from Sept. 1, 2009 until Aug. 31, 2011, allots 12 percent of all spending to higher education, but in the last fiscal year higher education made up almost 42 percent of all budget cuts with a $75.5 billion deficit, she said. This session, the Legislative Budget Board, an agency that recommends potential cuts to state agencies, suggested a $93.2 million cut to UT, said University Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty.
The group will also lobby for competitive insurance benefits and work with other universities to gain the ability for public schools to choose their own individual safety policies, including the ability to choose to outlaw guns on campus, she said.
“This is such a pivotal time for our University, and we need as many students as we can to get involved with lobbying for these issues,” Adler said. “There’s lots of ways to get involved and make an impact, and the easiest one is lobbying.”
The coalition’s first lobbying day will be in March at the Capitol, she said.
Eventually, the group wants to work with other Texas schools and the rest of the UT System to gain the same benefits for all schools in the state, said Talarico, SG executive director and government senior.
“Students have seen the effects of budget cuts on our campus already with things like increased class sizes, entire programs cut, reduced facility hours and fees at the doctor’s office,” he said. “If we want to prevent that from happening again, students must become involved in the legislative process. These lawmakers are deciding the future of our campus.”
One of the group’s plans is to have members of its organizations send postcards to their hometown’s representatives explaining the Invest in Texas platform, Talarico said. Getting home districts on the side of the students is a good to reach out to the Capitol, said Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, who met with Adler, Talarico and Spikes.
“The Capitol has to hear your voice from all over the state before you really have an impact on these issues,” said Spikes, the legislative director of the Graduate Student Assembly and an educational administration graduate student.
The Senate of College Councils and the Office of Academic Service Learning are working together to help students find courses that will combine academics with community outreach.
On Thursday night, the Senate passed a resolution in support of adding a service learning flag to the course schedule that would indicate classes with an emphasis on an outreach-oriented application of coursework. Senate will continue to work with the office to make the flag a reality, said Senate President Chelsea Adler.
“I went to Ghana the summer after my sophomore year for a month. The people I met and worked with opened my eyes,” Adler said. “There is so much potential for learning to take place outside the classroom, and service learning is the best way to take advantage of that.”
Rose Cahalan, the director of the office, said she and other administrators have been toying with the idea of adding the flag for some time and are glad to have found student allies in Senate leadership.
“The Office of Academic Service Learning fully supports the Senate resolution and enthusiastically welcomes student interest in this issue,” Cahalan said. “Adding a [service learning] flag would make it much easier for students to find out about our courses, and it would also improve our office’s record-keeping.”
Currently, the University has about 50 classes that qualify as service learning courses under the office’s support, Cahalan said. They are listed on the office’s website, but the new initiative would make their availability more apparent to all students registering.
Such a listing would encourage students with an interest in service learning to register for appropriate classes, while warning students who might not have service-related passions, said Alice Batt, a rhetoric and writing professor and the Undergraduate Writing Center coordinator. Batt teaches a class on writing for nonprofits, in which students write grants and promotional materials for local organizations.
“There are so many students who are really into volunteerism and wanting to be engaged in the community,” she said. “I developed the course in 2006 so we could talk about and actually do that kind of work. It fills every semester and there’s a huge waiting list, so I think I tapped into a niche.”
Cahalan warned that actually getting the flag in place could take several months, but Adler said she hopes to see it on the course schedule for fall 2011.