Incorruptible Mass

5.25 Cherish Act -- How we can support education and prevent student debt

September 12, 2023 Anna Callahan Season 5 Episode 25
5.25 Cherish Act -- How we can support education and prevent student debt
Incorruptible Mass
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Incorruptible Mass
5.25 Cherish Act -- How we can support education and prevent student debt
Sep 12, 2023 Season 5 Episode 25
Anna Callahan

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Today we talk about how we can provide higher education in a way that does not leave people struggling with debt for decades. We talk to three experts about both the Cherish Act and the Debt Free Future Act. You'll hear how our current higher ed system impacts people, not only students but also our educators.

Max Page, Ella Prabhakar and Vatsady Sivongxay join Jordan Berg Powers, Jonathan Cohn, and Anna Callahan to chat about Massachusetts politics. This is the audio version of the Incorruptible Mass podcast, season 5 episode 25. You can watch the video version on our YouTube channel.

You’re listening to Incorruptible Mass. Our goal is to help people transform state politics: we investigate why it’s so broken, imagine what we could have here in MA if we fixed it, and report on how you can get involved.

To stay informed:
* Subscribe to our YouTube channel
* Subscribe to the podcast (
* Sign up to get updates at
* Donate to the show at

Show Notes Transcript

Please donate to the show!

Today we talk about how we can provide higher education in a way that does not leave people struggling with debt for decades. We talk to three experts about both the Cherish Act and the Debt Free Future Act. You'll hear how our current higher ed system impacts people, not only students but also our educators.

Max Page, Ella Prabhakar and Vatsady Sivongxay join Jordan Berg Powers, Jonathan Cohn, and Anna Callahan to chat about Massachusetts politics. This is the audio version of the Incorruptible Mass podcast, season 5 episode 25. You can watch the video version on our YouTube channel.

You’re listening to Incorruptible Mass. Our goal is to help people transform state politics: we investigate why it’s so broken, imagine what we could have here in MA if we fixed it, and report on how you can get involved.

To stay informed:
* Subscribe to our YouTube channel
* Subscribe to the podcast (
* Sign up to get updates at
* Donate to the show at

Hello and welcome to Incorruptible Mass. Our mission here is to help us all transform state politics. We know that the state of Massachusetts and the legislature can really represent the needs of the vast majority of the residents of our beautiful state.

And today we are talking about higher ed. We're going to talk about the Cherish Act. We're going to talk about the Debt Free Future Act.

We are going to be talking about how these impact both students and teachers, about the coalition that is behind this wonderful movement. And we have three amazing guests. Who? Max Page, Ella Prabhakar and Vatsady Sivongxay. And we will introduce them in just 1 second. Before we do, we'll get this out of the way, our regulars. I will start with Jonathan. 

Jonathan Cohn. He him his, joining from Boston. I've been active with issue and electoral organizing in Massachusetts for a number of years and always happy to be here and always love the burst of energy that Anna brings when starting.

Thank you. And Jordan. 

Jordan Berg powers. He him. And we have a whole mortgage worth of student debt in our household. So loving this conversation.

I am Anna Callahan. She her, coming at you from Medford. Love all the local and state politics, and I would love now to introduce our totally amazing guests.

I will do each of you in turn. I will start if you can talk a little bit about yourself and your organization. I'll start with Max page.

Hi, everyone. Great to be here. So, I'm Max Page.

I teach at UMass Amherst when I'm not doing this other job, which is what I'm doing now, which is I'm the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents 117,000 educators all across our public schools and public colleges and universities. We represent about 18,000 staff and faculty across all of our 29 public colleges and universities. Thank you.

And Ella Prabhakar. Hi, everyone. My name is Ella.

I'm a student at, UMass amherst. I'm a junior this year studying civil engineering. And I'm also an activist and advocate with Phenom, which is the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts.

And we are fighting for complete and total financial accessibility in public higher education, starting in conjunction with this coalition. Fantastic. And Vatsady Sivongxay 

Hi, everyone. I'm Vatsady Sivongxay, director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance.

Happy to be here again to share this awesome space with you all. Meja is a statewide coalition of organizations led by student groups, by organizations led by parents, by caregivers families, community members, and also our union partners. And one of the key parts of ensuring that we have high quality education is to have affordable, high quality public higher education.

Wonderful. We are going to go ahead and start with the Cherish Act. And Max, I would love for you to dive into what does it do, why is it needed and a little bit of history, if that's what people need to know.

Sure, I'll try to do that real quickly. So first thing I'm going to say is we cannot have racial or economic justice in Massachusetts as we claim to want to have, without providing debt free access to high quality public higher education. Period.

It should be a seamless web of connection between pre K childcare pre K through grade twelve and then beyond. Everyone deserves access. That's the bottom line of what we in the MTA and in this higher ed for all coalition believe in debt free, high quality public higher education for every resident of the Commonwealth.

So the Cherish Act is a blueprint to achieve that. First, it says you can graduate from a public college and university without debt. Now, the very wealthiest may not need any support because they can graduate without debt.

It's about making sure that everyone can graduate without debt, counting for the full cost of attending a public college or university. Number two, it makes sure that when students get to college, they could get through and have a successful experience and graduate. Far too many students cannot afford or don't get the guidance they need to make sure they get to graduation.

Third part is to make sure that there's sufficient staff and faculty and fairly paid and we don't continue to exploit, continue and to increasingly exploit adjunct faculty and our public colleges and universities. And finally is that we have the state pay for state buildings. That is, our campus buildings should be paid for by the state.

People don't realize that so many of our college buildings, public college and university buildings, are paid for by the campuses, which means they raise fees, which it turns into student debt. So we're back to the first part of the Cherish Act. So these four pillars are what make the Cherish Act so sort of this blueprint for achieving what we have to achieve to have a more just Commonwealth.

Amazing. I want to comment that yes, go. Oh, my super quick thing.

I always love bill naming. So can you tell us what Cherish stands for and what's the origin of the name? Cherish? 

Yes. So John Adams, in writing our state constitution, wrote, it's a beautiful passage about the importance of Cherishing public schools and our higher education institutions.

So we use that word as a way to emphasize that that applies to our pre K through higher ed schools and colleges. 

Awesome. Love the history in there.

I just was going to say that. Look, I went to college in the, went to a public school in Michigan. I went to University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, got my math degree, and I was out of state.

And I think I paid maybe $8,000 a year in tuition each year. And for in-state it was less than $2000. And I can't believe how insane the skyrocketing cost of public colleges has been.

I would love to ask you, Max, if you can tell us a little bit about the history in Massachusetts. Did we used to have lower cost public college? Actually, it was Phenom, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts. Ella's a part of, did a great chart to show that at UMass Amherst, which is the flagship campus, the most costly campus all the way through they could go to that campus, work ten hour a week, minimum wage job, and graduate without debt.

In other words, what we're trying to do here is simply go back to what we once had. We largely once had in this state. In fact, when UMass Amherst was founded in 1863, it was to be as close to free as possible.

That's a quote from the founding documents. Oh, my God. And by the way, again, I have to say, how often do you hear, can we just go back to the 90s? Yeah, I can't believe it.

There was great music. True. 

But I think it's important that people understand that part of the reason that we've gotten into this place is not just that, oh, things just cost more.

It's that the state used to fund more of this piece. It's a big part of that funding. And the state has basically just taken its role out and put that burden onto individual college students.

That's the fundamental story – state disinvestment in public institutions. UMass Amherst and all the campuses used to be 90% of their budgets were paid for by the state, which means by taxes that we hopefully collected progressively. Now we’re, it's below 50% that actually comes from the state. So that is the fundamental story over the past 30 years. Sorry.

I would just add that we now have more money coming in from taxes because of the millionaires tax that was just passed the Fair Share Amendment. So there's really no excuse for our state government to not be prioritizing higher education. Yeah.

Ella, I'm going to turn to you. Since we're talking about debt free, can you tell us a little bit about the Debt Free Future Act? Yeah, absolutely. So first I'll just share that I'm paying $17,000 in tuition, and that's with in-state tuition and a couple of scholarships as well.

So that's my situation. And so the Debt Free Future Act we see as really a transformational approach to financial accessibility. The wording of the bill is that the state will be putting aside money to pay for the tuition of every Massachusetts resident to go to a public college, university, or trade school free of tuition.

So sorry, I think that's just a lawnmower outside. Can you still hear me? Yes. Great.

Okay. Yeah. Perfect.

So this is written with the awareness that financial accessibility goes beyond just the number on your tuition bill, that there are so many other costs involved in being a student, the cost of textbooks, food insecurities, housing, all these things. So to truly move Massachusetts into an economy where we have social equity, we have racial equity where students are not graduating with the chains of debt for the rest of their lives. We need free tuition and we need living stipends.

Ella, I want to tag into something that you were talking about in the beginning where you had noted about how you kind of mentioned the recent money that came in because of the fair share amendment last year and that in the budget, especially because of the money, that there were some steps forward in terms of financial accessibility. Would love to hear you kind of follow your past comments and dig a little bit more. It's like, what's the gap? Right? Because if there was progress made, but with what the legislature passed and the governor signed, the need for the Debt Free Future Act is still very clear to actually go all the way.

Yeah, absolutely. So what we've heard from the governor just recently is that we're getting free community college for those 25 and older this session, and then in 2025, we're going to get free community college for everyone. And this is a great step.

Community college students are most of the time working several jobs, not only pay for their tuition, but to support themselves because they often don't have the cushion of generational wealth that other students have. That makes it much easier to access so many things. But we really want to fight for support, not just for those community college students, but also for everyone who is attending secondary education.

In the know, we see that there's this huge push towards privatization, not only like privatization of paying for school, like you have to now be paying to private debtors, but also privatization of jobs in the US system across the state. So we see these private interests that are trying to make money off of what should be a public good. And we're just trying to say that we're not going to let that stand.

We're not going to allow our cost to keep going up and our money to be going into the private interest pockets of private interests. So we're going to recognize our power as students and as citizens. We're going to stand up and say that education should be free.

I am going to jump in here. Yes, sorry. Go ahead, jump in.

I think what's also the community college coverage of being able to start your education at a community college right, that's near your home, that's flexible, that is very welcoming to nontraditional students, is a really great way to take that first step. But then we also need to provide a future success where if for those folks who it is going to open up more opportunities for them and their families to get that four year degree then that they have that chance to. Right.

So I think if we can really build upon our vision for all of our families to have that four year path, it would build our community and build the foundation for our democracy and make it both our communities and our democracy stronger. Right? So it's like this is a great first step. Let's just think about the ultimate vision for our entire communities and our ahead.

I'll just say really quickly, I just want to go on what Ella said. So we had somebody come in before us at one point and somebody said to the group that I was of the things one of the reasons we should allow privatization more often is we had somebody who was cleaning and we were paying $80,000 a year. And we saved taxpayers money by privatizing that service and getting a private person in.

And now it cost us $60,000. But look, we kept the person who was there and I said, so what do you think happened to that person's wages? They were getting that $80,000 and now they're getting less money. And they said, oh well, but they got to keep their job.

And I was like, yeah, but you've just now taken money out of the system. And I was like, and who's the corporation? Oh, it's a corporation that's not in Massachusetts. And how much are they paying? Oh well they cut their pay by that.

So now half of that money is leaving the state, going someplace else to corporations to give things and the worker who's here gets paid less. And we know that eventually that corporation is going to say, hey, well if you want this service you're going to have to pay us more and it's going to be more than the 80K than they're currently like that saving is going to disappear within a year or two because they're going to maximize their profits. So I think it's really important when we say privatization, what does that mean? It means like, we're going to take money that should be a public good, but it's not just a public good.

We're going to take money that's going to people, individual people, and we're going to give that money tax for money to corporations and they're going to pay people less. 

And by definition, let's remember, especially if it's a C Corp, it is literally the legal definition of a C Corp that they must prioritize the profits of their shareholders over anything else. That's literally the legal definition of a C Corp.

So you know that the profit is coming out and going to shareholders. I.e. the ultra wealthy. Yeah, maximum.

No, I fully agree. And this has been the trend over the past 30 years is not only disinvesting and therefore leading to higher tuition fees but also trying to outsource all kinds of things. Right near where I'm sitting right now is a huge new, quote unquote, dormitory.

But it's a private dormitory in which a company will house students but in fact take the profits for 30 or 40 years and then return a decrepit building back to the state. If it's okay, I would love to, though, highlight. I think this is a real important kind of weedy question about what is debt free? That was brought up because there's a real difference between what we hear about of like free Community College and what would really make it free.

So often when people talk about, oh, it's Free Community College, what the new mass reconnect program is, is it says after you get all your different grants and so on, we will make up the difference. We the state on the last dollar. That's the phrase used, the last dollar to cover your tuition and fees.

Now that's good. That's an additional money for students. That's good.

But that's not really covering the true cost of attendance. And what has been shown over and over again that the students that you really want to attend, working class students, students of color who do not have the wealth to go, they won't go, or they won't be able to get all the way through unless we're supporting their full cost of attendance. Room, board, transportation, childcare, that's essential to make this successful.

So we can have a program that's called Free Community College. But if it is only this so called last dollar and is only about tuition and fees, it's not going to achieve our goals. So we have a moment with fair Share, as Ellis said, with this commitment to public higher EB to get it right.

And we better get it right. We don't want to have like a political sound bite that says, oh, we passed Free Community College if it doesn't actually help the students we're trying to help the most. So that's why this kind of getting into the weeds of what are we truly covering with our scholarship program or with Debt Free Future or the Cherish Act matters.

And both Debt Free Future and the Cherish Act get it right by looking at the full cost of attendance so that making sure students can get to college and get through. 

Fantastic. It is my job here on the show to make sure that we can cover our expenses.

And we were talking a little bit about privatization and how important it is that there is no corporate money, not corporate money. That there is no corporate influence over these parts of our education. We never take any corporate money.

We are here as one of the only outlets in Massachusetts where you can hear discussions like this about progressive issues. So please do send over a donation. You'll see that the donation link is directly below, either in YouTube or in your podcast app.

So please do that. That would be amazing. And on that note, we are going to return to our conversation.

I would love to pass this over to Jordan because I know you have some anecdotes about teachers and what is happening to teachers under this system that we're under. I'll just I'll just really quickly for the reminder for folks who donate that unlike what we should be paying our teachers, jonathan, Anna and I are not getting paid for this. That the money you donate goes to all the folks behind the scenes, especially young folks.

Yes. It goes to all the folks behind the scenes who make this possible, who help us put this up. And so just great.

So please do donate. Yeah. So I'll just say really quickly, she hates when I call her this.

Dr. Kara Berg Powers on the show to talk about sex education, but in her day job, she is an adjunct teacher. She adjuncts at Worcester State.

She has another fancy title at Clark. That is just another way of saying adjuncting at Clark University. And that is something that's happening across the systems we know, is that it's really hard.

People think, oh, the problem is these teachers who are tenured can't get fired, all these things that they say. But the truth is they're going towards this   of paying people again as little as possible in this system. And so that means that my wife is barely getting by.

She has to teach a lot of classes, five to six classes, to barely get by. She would have to, I think, teach three classes to pay off her student debt that she has for getting these degrees. And that's destabilizing both for students who ask her if she'll be around, and she'll say, I don't know for herself.

She once had a class canceled a week beforehand, which was money we were budgeting that just disappeared out of nowhere. She can't get unemployment because she's basically an at will contractor for these university systems. It is a mess, and it is really hard to plan.

It's hard to have stability. The universities know they're sort of different relationships to her. Luckily, at Worcester State, she's in the union, so that not only gives her more stability, but has really given her a clear community that can bring her, you know, when she's at an institution that doesn't have that union, the university just sort of treats her like, oh, well, you're just a passer.

Like, who are you to us, essentially? So there's just a lot of destabilization around these, and that's the direction that these universities are trying to go to save money. And so, Max, I'll ask you a view of this from all the teachers across. Yeah, I mean, this is a huge problem.

I don't think people realize how much of the teaching that takes place in our public colleges and universities is done by adjunct faculty. At some community colleges, it's 70 or 80% of the courses are taught by adjuncts. What does that mean? That doesn't mean they're not great teachers.

It means they are underpaid. They have no health care benefits. They have no pension benefits.

They have no job security. It's terrible. It is sort of the leading edge in higher ed of the uberization of the economy.

And frankly, the universities sometimes would love to be able to have an app call up a math teacher and math professor. They'd love to be able to do that. And that's sort of what they do.

They cancel at the last minute. They hire people second week into the class. It's a terrible situation and it's an important part of undermining the quality of the institution.

So part of the Cherish Act is actually to hire more full time faculty and staff and also provide adjuncts with the health insurance and pension benefits they deserve. So we really have to be thinking in this discussion, of course we want debt free access. That's primary.

But it's also, I would call it frankly racist to say, well, we want more students of color to come into our institutions, but we're going to underfund them. So the buildings will be falling down, we'll exploit the faculty. So we have to look at both the debt free side and I'll call it quality, the investment in the people, the programs and the buildings.

Yeah, I love your perspective too, as a student. I hear about it from Kara's, thoughts about students, talking to her about sort of her in and out. Is my class running? Is it not running? But I would love your perspective as a current student, sort of what it's like to have these interacting with teachers like this.

Yeah, absolutely. I think I've heard a lot about the teacher's perspective. I have a family member who was an adjunct professor for maybe almost ten years and never got hired full time, never saw any long term benefits from that job, so eventually had to leave even though she was a great professor and really cared about her students a lot.

And obviously the issue of tuition and debt and the scarce amount of resources is really relevant towards students. I talk to people all the time who not only do they have to plan long term, like not having any confidence that they're going to be able to own a home, afford rent after graduating, but also just choices. That people make in their academic careers, like being able to study the things that they're truly passionate about because they need to pay off the money that they spent to get this education.

Which first of all, we are told from the moment that we start high school or middle school that we need to go to college to get a good job. Or many people are told that if they have even the opportunity to think about going to college. So from the student perspective, everything that you all have mentioned, so, so important.

For the next question, I'm going to weave a comment that I wanted to make before as a nice segue into the next question. So before, when we were like, Max, I thought you made excellent points about how what does free even mean? Right? Because of the fact that free can often be used to talk about very different things. And it's always important to, let's say, unpack the language used in politics.

We also wanted to talk about, let's say, funding levels for a public higher ed, because often one thing that we've talked about in past episodes of the show is that a lot of budget reporting just talks about the total value when it's often not talked about in the context of, like, well, what was it the year before? What was inflation? How does that impact to what extent this is like, this huge upward trend, even if the raw numbers go up? Can you tell us a little bit about what does it look like for funding levels for higher ed, say, from the recent budget and how that compares to recent years? So there's two kind of statistics that I especially look towards. One is how much of our total budget or of our total income in the state do we dedicate to public higher education? We dedicate less than a third of 1% to running all 29 public college and universities, 1% of our income. In other words, that's the possibility.

We are wealthier than we have ever been. We are at the bottom in terms of the proportion of our total kind of per capita income that goes to public higher ed. Oh my God.

Very specific thing. A statistic on the student side is like, how much per student do we spend? And we had dropped 30% between 2000 and around 2019. We have recovered a little bit of that.

But that's like a basic number that says per student, how much are we investing in our students? And that's how much it had dropped over those years that's led to the big tuition and fee hikes. That's why we've done more exploitation of adjunct faculty. I think we're at a moment, though, especially with the Fair Share Amendment and especially with the building of this big coalition to reverse that.

But that is how far off we are in investment in public higher education. In K twelve, we have still a long way to go, but of course, per student we are near the top. Overall spending on public education pre K through twelve is near the top, and the results show it.

I think it's also a good reminder, as they go into reports of talking about tax cuts for the wealthy, that that is a choice that we could instead be investing in our public higher education system instead of making it cheaper for people who are dead to pass their wealth to people who didn't earn it. Well, here's an interesting fact that the $500 million that the governor and the House of Representatives have proposed that would be regressive taxes, tax cuts for the very wealthy. We calculate the cost of the Cherish Act's version of true debt free costs, ready about $500 million.

So you choose $500 million for a permanent commitment to educate the people of the Commonwealth or $500 million to some of the wealthiest people in the world. It's actually disgusting. The more I say it, I'm like, this is disgusting.

And don't forget that we literally just voted on this. We just voted to give more money to education and transportation. It wasn't even just now more random general budget stuff.

We just voted to do this and instead tax cuts for the rich. So far it hasn't happened yet, though. We've been doing a good campaign to hold it back.

That's actually a good segue. What should people do if they want to prevent that money from being squandered away? Varsity? Oh, there's so much you can do, but there are a few things that are coming up that the Higher Ed for all coalition is working on. And I'm sure we would all love folks to chip in, contribute wherever and however you can, but the coalition, just to take a step back, the coalition is a pretty new coalition as of last year.

It's a coalition of students, educators, parents, union and business leaders and community supporters who truly believe that we really need to have true, high quality, debt free, public higher ed for everyone. And we're working or organizing to ensure that there's the necessary major investment in our colleges and universities. Coming up.

Is the hearing next week? Is that next week? Yeah, or the 18th. I can't get it. Oh, my goodness.

Yeah. And we are getting some folks together at the State House, and we're hoping that it could be hybrid as well. And so folks can contribute to testify that way.

But also just reaching out to your representative and letting them know how important it is for them to support the Sheriff's Act and the debt free rate. Talking to your neighbors is also something important and in hearing from your families and your friends who are going through this, whether there are students, parents paying for their debt like me, and trying to save for their future student, college student right. Or if it's an adjunct professor who's going through some of these challenging moments that is caused by the state not investing in our public education system.

But John and I and Phenom and MTA and a lot of other organizations across the state support this. So that's how folks can get involved. John, did you want to share a little bit more? I don't know if we have the link handy or maybe we can share that later on.

Yeah. No, I'll shout out. Thanks for dropping in the chat here for the

link that has a lot of great information about the coalition, about the bills that the coalition supports, about upcoming events. If you go on there, I'm just confirming that it in fact appears there, and I'm not sure that if you would like to testify at the hearing but have never testified before, the coalition is going to have some testimony, prep kind of events where we kind of go. Through some of the best practices for doing that and kind of demystify it for folks coming weeks because it is as Vasidi noted, if people want to testify for that hearing on the 18th in person, it's the 18th at 10:00 A.m.

In Gardner Auditorium, but you would be also able to testify virtually, which I think has been a great addition at the State House for hearings in general, since not everybody is able to make it to Boston in the middle of the workday or even just like, any time of the day. If you have transit and you have kind of various reasons for limited mobility. So that's something that by the time that you get called, it might be on your lunch break anyway.

So something that you could adapt. Not sure if your schedule or have a watch party so that people stay to whenever they actually get called. Kind of different ways of participating as well as simply the important thing with any legislation I say is making sure that your legislators hear that, hear that you care about things.

Because one thing I'm sure, Max and Jordan, you've heard this many times, they don't actually hear from their constituents that often outside of a few districts where they hear from everybody all the time. That it's like if you're in Cambridge, you hear from all of your constituents all of the time about everything. But for most districts, they often don't hear from people that regularly.

So hearing from five people in one day puts something on their radar and might even spook them a bit. Yeah, just make it easy, I'd say, like you can do things if you don't want to testify, just make a phone call to your state rep. If you don't want to make a phone call, tag them and tell them how much debt you have and how silly that know on Twitter.

There's so many ways I would encourage you to do something to raise this issue for your legislator. As Jonathan said, they never hear from us, rarely do they hear from us. And so you listening right now, have probably might be the only person to talk to them.

So make sure to bring somebody with you, but just do something simple to make sure to raise this issue. Fantastic. I want to just go ahead Ella.

Yeah, just to add that there are really easy ways to reach out to your legislator by email as well. I know Phenop and the MTA and probably Major as well have tools available on our website where you just put in your address. It's really helpful to add a couple of sentences just to personalize the email, tell your legislator why you care about the issue, but those are really easy ways to make your voice heard as well.

But if you can be there on 918 and check out because there's a lot of great ways to give test testimony or information about buses that are coming in on that day. Amazing.

Thank you so much to everyone. It was just an incredible conversation. Thanks so much to all of our listeners, and we look forward to talking with you all next week.

Thanks so much. Thank you. Bye.