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Higher education bill passes out of committee

March 07, 2006
By: Jason Rosenbaum and John Amick
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB1865

JEFFERSON CITY - A bill passed out of a Missouri House committee seeks to cap the amount of aid to public colleges and universities, and would transfer new funds to scholarships.

"The students are really what we ought to be funding," said House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles. "We need to fund the recipients of the benefit, rather than the institution that's providing it."

Under the plan, public universities and colleges would receive additional funding above the fiscal year 2001 operating budget level only if they meet three statewide performance standards and two other measures which would be negotiated by each institution and the Missouri Department of Higher Education.

The bill would place funds that would have been given straight to public institutions and install the money into scholarships.

Once granted, students could then redeem the scholarships at a public or private college or university.

Bearden, who is a member of the Special Committee on Student Achievement and Finance, said his bill is a way to fund higher education in the future.

"It focuses on the students," Bearden said. "It allows for continued funding for institutions, but primarily focuses on the students by using scholarships that we have place, plus a new one called Access Missouri."

The Access Missouri scholarship would start next July and would give up to a thousand dollars to students who do not qualify under standards of the A+ Program.

UM System spokesman Joe Moore said the university perceives some aspects of the bill to be problematic, such as the stipulation in the bill that says state appropriations would be capped.

"[This] creates a situation in which several years from now, we would be searching for ways to make up for large shortfalls in state funding," Moore said.

"During a time when Missourians are asking us to simplify financial assistance for students, this would create a new scholarship and a new layer of administration, he said.

Boone County legislators offered a mixed assessment of Bearden's bill, splitting along partisan lines in their reactions.

Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said the bill would not be good for the university.

"It hurts Columbia and MU," Harris said.

Dubbing the legislation Bearden's "voucher" bill, Harris said the measure would transfer more public tax dollars to private universities.

"And overall, I think it's a step backward for higher education," Harris said.

Rep. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, echoed some of Harris' sentiments.

"The reason we have public universities is so they'll be accessible to all students," Shoemyer said. "This is hurt when we siphon off money to private institutions."

But Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, said he is favorable to Bearden's approach, because it allows students from poorly-performing school districts, such as St. Louis or Kansas City, a way to get into college.

"It's not one of those skimming bills where they skim off the A students," Robb said. "This is a bill where they're going to try to help students who are trapped in school districts that are failing the educational requirements that these students need to have."

Robb said he would look at any solution that would give St. Louis high school students the type of education that a Southern Boone or Columbia high school student could get.

"We're doing them a tremendous disservice," Robb said. "It's actually a sin the way those school districts operate. So it's just a question on how we fix that."

While there are other things Robb can do, he said the bill is a good first step in the right direction.

"I'm fairly sure I'll be supporting this legislation," Robb said.

Bearden said the bill still needs to go through the Rules Committee before it comes out on the floor again. He said it should be back on the floor in a couple of weeks.