By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
As state institutions of higher education push a proposal that would grant them autonomy over tuition and operations in light of severe budget constraints, a coalition of education proponents is working on a proposal that would guarantee funding for education.
Details of the proposal were hazy Friday, but Lisa Weil, director of policy for Great Education Colorado, told the Denver Daily News exclusively that the group is pushing for a referred measure.
The Great Futures Colorado coalition — comprised of 19 organizations representing preschool through higher education — is spearheading a campaign to find a long-term funding solution for P-20 education in Colorado. Weil said the effort must include all levels of education.
“We’ve been pitting one against the other for too long, and it’s not good for our kids and it’s not good for the state,” she said.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out a way to find another way,” Weil continued. “Right now, the only options that are available to the Legislature is É to cut education, and these are irreparable, irreversible cuts. So, our goal is to find some way to get Colorado out of this box where the only option is to slash schools, increase tuition and make education less and less available to kids of all ages.”
The coalition is expected to make an official announcement about the campaign in the coming weeks.
Conflicting constitutional spending mandates and restrictions in Colorado have for years placed state education in a precarious situation. While the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires a vote of the people to raise taxes, and while up until last year Colorado was restricted to 6 percent growth under the Colorado spending limit known as Arveschoug-Bird, a separate 2000 voter-approved constitutional amendment requires that education spending rise every year by 1 percent.
Meanwhile, higher education is not protected by spending mandates, which has historically made it a popular target for budget cuts when the state experiences significant shortfalls. Lawmakers have already had to trim more than $2 billion over the last two budgets and are faced with cutting another $1.3 billion from the coming fiscal year.
Education in general is being cut by approximately 6 percent across the board, but higher education may bear the brunt of the burden, facing $89 million in cuts for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The Higher Education Strategic Planning Committee recently recommended that institutions of higher education have greater tuition and operational flexibility contingent on approval of financial plans submitted by the institutions. The proposals would need to address access and affordability for low and middle income students. The Commission on Higher Education would still be the final authority, but state colleges and universities would technically be allowed to raise tuition above the 9 percent maximum allowable under current state law.
A bill in the Senate aims to give institutions such a right.
“In (Fiscal Year 2011-12) we’d lose federal funds, which will be a considerable amount and the forecasts aren’t expecting revenue to come back up,” explained John Karakoulakis, spokesman for the Department of Higher Education. “So, this would be a way to try and backfill that.”
Over the past three years, higher education has been cut $622 million, according to the governor’s office. Those cuts will be backfilled by federal economic stimulus dollars, but concerns are mounting for FY 2011-12 when those dollars run dry.
Fears are also rising that the upcoming March economic forecast is going to reflect an even greater shortfall. The Long Bill will be based on the March forecast.
Nathan Dirnberger, spokesman for the Associated Students of Colorado, said that while he understands state institutions are struggling with budget constraints, raising tuition is simply not the answer. He and fellow students instead opt for the proposal being pushed by the Great Futures Colorado campaign.
A tuition hike of 9 percent equals about $700 extra a year for the average state college student. With hikes year after year, students could be forced out of higher education, at a time when enrollment is at historic highs.
“We do understand that they can’t really do much else other than either cut the budget and enable schools to raise their tuition so that they don’t get constrained by it,” said Dirnberger. “But to us, we need a long-term solution that fixes it. Otherwise, it’s just going to get worse and worse.”