The latest higher education governance proposal has possibilities, but funding arrangements could make or break the plan.
As a veteran of last year's House Special Committee on Higher Education Governance, Rep. Jim Garner, D-Coffeyville, knows what the key issue in this year's higher education debate will be.
Garner, the new House minority leader, made a pre-session visit to the Journal-World this week. Asked his opinion about a new plan formulated by a task force on higher education governance, Garner immediately focused on the funding aspects of the bill.
This year's task force (more than 20 special groups have studied higher education governance in the last several years) was led by Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer and Pittsburg businessman Gene Bicknell. The latest plan would create a seven-member higher education coordinating council for all public higher education and a nine-member board of trustees to oversee the state's 19 community colleges, which now are under the Kansas State Board of Education. All of the new board members would be appointed by the governor.
The plan would require a constitutional amendment to institute the changes. It is notable that the plan was supported by 17 of the task force's 19 members. That included representatives of the Kansas Board of Regents, state universities and community colleges. Certain turf concerns no doubt still exist among higher education leaders, but the fact that the cross-section represented on the task force could support the plan gives it a big boost over many other proposals.
But the plan lays out only the structure of higher education governance. There is nothing about funding, which was a primary component of the plan proposed last year by the House committee on which Garner served. Much attention was focused on providing relief for counties that support community colleges with property tax levies. To offset the huge state commitment to community college counties, a multi-year funding package also was included for state universities. It seems unlikely that any higher education governance package will pass without similar financial components.
Garner said that he was disappointed last year that Gov. Bill Graves never "became engaged" in the higher education proposal. Although Graves has said he "won't have any trouble recommending to the Legislature that they adopt" the latest task force plan, he hardly seems like a cheerleader for the cause. And it remains to be seen what provisions he will make in his budget for implementing the higher education changes.
If the aforementioned turf concerns can be addressed, the task force plan seems to have possibilities. A balance must be found that maintains the integrity of the Kansas Board of Regents while providing more state coordination and supervision of community colleges.
Graves said this week, "This is the time." We'll soon know if the Kansas House and Senate agree.