Saving education from cuts comes at a cost

Next week when the governor signs the special session edition of the state budget, expect an outbreak of fist bumps by lawmakers pleased they repaired a major gash without further grafting from the financial hide of higher education.

After a couple of years mending deficits with dollars from the bank accounts of colleges, Gov. Chris Gregoire and lawmakers covered Washington’s $500 million budget hole this year without digging into those accounts again.

It’ll be a moment the state’s corporate giants will celebrate, as their emissaries campaigned to save higher education from more pillaging. And it’ll be a moment the leaders of two- and four-year schools will celebrate too; for them the next best thing to getting dough in good times is not losing any in bad times.

But there are no free victories in politics.

The cost of this one may be the loss of a little independence.

Olympia’s elected class decided this year they wanted to have a bigger role in the day-to-day educating of college students and a stronger accounting of how taxpayer dimes and quarters are spent accomplishing it.

Under a new law, this July will see the elimination of the Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees financial aid programs and is a fount of studies, analyses and strategic plans lawmakers can use in setting statewide policy.

Two new entities will replace it: one office to focus on financial aid and a separate nine-member Student Achievement Council that will do nearly everything else the HEC board did and then some.

A couple of chores will disappear but for the most part this council, like the HEC board, will be figuring out what colleges now charge, teach and own, and what they need to charge, teach and build in the future to produce graduates for Boeing, Microsoft and the rest of the state’s industrial sector.

They also must diagram a path for the state to make sure those schools get it done.

There are differences spelled out in the law, which, when added up, may mean a subtraction of power for each institution of higher education.

For example, colleges and universities will have to prove to the council they’re doing what they say they’re doing or face consequences. Lawmakers want the council to tell them how and where money should be spent and expects to be told which colleges aren’t performing up to snuff.

Also, the law says if the two-year colleges have a gripe with the four-year universities, the council will arbitrate. The HEC board didn’t have such power.

Finally, with no vocal champion in Olympia, the HEC board often saw its work disrespected or ignored. The council shouldn’t suffer such a fate because its makeup is politically designed.

University presidents get to name one member. So too does the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges. Granting each a vested interest ensures they will be giving, taking and fighting on the council and, if necessary, in front of lawmakers.

And there’s more in this law.

Apparently legislators didn’t think having higher education committees in the House and Senate is enough. So they created the Joint Committee on Higher Education to be made up of two Democrats and two Republicans from each chamber.

This panel will be the way station where members of the achievement council must stop to share their ideas and recommendations. It also will craft legislation that means purveyors of postsecondary learning better show up to make sure their interests are protected and served.

Outsiders might look at all that lawmakers did and wonder if the higher education system needed this much saving.

For those on the front lines who faced the prospect of receiving less state aid and higher tuition, it’s not a question they’re asking.

At least not until after the governor sets her pen down next week.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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