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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Jury still out on higher ed reform

April 6, 2001

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Nearly two years ago, Gov. Bill Graves signed into law Senate Bill 345, an overhaul of higher education in Kansas.

Passage of the bill was hailed by many as historic, by others as misguided. It represented the culmination of more than two decades of attempts by lawmakers to reform higher education.

But just as when it was first debated, now two years later, the bill has both its supporters and detractors.

In the middle are those in charge of seeing that the provisions of Senate Bill 345 are followed.

Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Clay Blair, at a recent meeting, described the higher education bill as a "work in progress."

A state senator who helped push the measure along stated it was not intended to be a "magic bill."

State Sen. Christine Downey, D-Inman, said the bill's major purpose was to streamline the governance of higher education by giving the Board of Regents more authority.

"Now, when someone asks who speaks for higher education in Kansas, the answer will be the Board of Regents, because they truly will represent all sectors of the higher education community," she said.

The law essentially brought various areas of higher education under one roof the Board of Regents.

Prior to Senate Bill 345, supervision of the 19 community colleges and 11 vocational and technical schools was under the Kansas Board of Education, which also is in charge of kindergarten through 12th grade.

Now, the community colleges and vocational and technical schools are under the supervision of the Board of Regents, although the schools still retain their local boards and trustees.

In addition, the regents are responsible for coordination of all post-secondary education in Kansas.

The bill also contained a number of deadlines for higher education institutions to meet to improve performance.

For example, by July 1, higher education institutions must have in place improvement plans. By July 1, 2002, the Legislature will make additional appropriations for performance funding.

State Rep. Ralph Tanner, R-Baldwin and a supporter of Senate Bill 345, said implementation of the measure has had its ups and downs "but by and large, we have done what we set out to do."

"We put the location of oversight of all of higher education in one place. I think we are going to learn as we continue, and we'll find better ways to fund and take care of the business of higher education," Tanner said.

As with many issues in Topeka, success rests in funding.

One part of the bill was to give community colleges extra funds, so the schools could reduce their property tax rates. Some lawmakers have ex-pressed frustration that many of these colleges' tax rates have not been decreased enough, while other lawmakers say the state has not provided enough funds for the schools to do that.

Tanner said lawmakers and Graves have made a commitment to increase faculty pay. During discussions on Senate Bill 345, university officials said increasing faculty pay was a major priority because Kansas lagged behind pay scales with peer institutions.

Faculty have received relatively high pay raises, but again, some in higher education have argued those increases have been at the expense of students in tuition increases, and reductions in other budget areas.

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