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Make room for another study

The calendar for the next few months already is packed with education finance studies, but it looks like one more is going to be added to the list.

David Skaggs, director of the Department of Higher Education, is pushing for an 18-month project to craft a new master plan for the state’s colleges and universities. While finance wouldn’t be the sole focus of the project, the shaky condition of college funding is one impetus for the study.

Several other studies are already in progress, including:

The legislative Interim Committee to Study School Finance, which will meet this summer and fall and prepare recommendations for the 2010 legislative session. (Some members have suggested aspects of college funding ought to be part of their work.)

The legislative Long-term Fiscal Stability Commission, which is assigned to study Colorado’s overall revenue picture and constitutional constraints. Since K-12 and college spending account for just over half of annual state general fund spending, education unavoidably will be a big factor in this group’s discussions. It’s on the same time schedule as the other school finance committee.

Four committees are expected to convene shortly to advise Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien’s office on preparation of Colorado’s application for Race to the Top federal stimulus funds. This will be a summer-only project, because the state’s Race application will be due late summer or early fall. Even if Colorado is successful, money may not be awarded until the spring of 2010.

A study will begin later this year of the costs involved in implementing the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. That’s the 2008 overhaul of the education system that calls for descriptions of school and postsecondary/workforce readiness, new K-12 content standards, new statewide tests and alignment of the K-12 and postsecondary systems. The first part of this study is due next March, with the final report finished by October 2010. (This paid study will be done by an outside contractor.)

And, the P-20 Education Coordinating Council is scheduled to revive sometime this summer. The panel is on hiatus during legislative sessions but goes back to work later after receiving its annual “assignment” from Gov. Bill Ritter. It’s expected the council will have a lighter-than-usual load of work, at least until late fall, to avoid distracting from the Race to the Top effort.

All of the studying presumably will give the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions plenty to think about – and to sort out, since there likely will be overlap and conflict.

Skaggs told EdNews he began thinking a few months ago about a new higher education master plan, prompted by several things, including:

A state law that directs the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to develop a master plan. But, the last one was done 10 years ago and, as a Skaggs memo to the commission dryly notes, “Conditions facing higher education have change substantially in the last decade.” (Among other things, two economic downturns and resulting state financial crises in the last decade have decimated state financial support for colleges.)

A recent report detailing the failings of the state College Opportunity Fund stipends.

The fact that the department already is doing some big-picture planning thanks to the Lumina Foundation’s Making Opportunity Affordable grant program, which focuses on expanding access to higher education.

The state financial crisis, which left college funding for 2009-10 frozen at 2008-09 levels. That level of support was patched together only with the help of federal stimulus funds, which will run out after the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Skaggs stresses the master plan won’t be only about money, but rather about “how higher education serves the state’s purposes and gets us where we need to be … that should be the driver of the need for money.” (For more detail on Skaggs’ thinking, see this memo.)

The plan, at least for now, is to hold a one-day conference of K-12 and college educators, business leaders, the governor, legislators and others in late July or early August. That meeting would decide on goals, objectives and the process for the master plan, and after that working groups would develop various pieces. The goal is for the commission to adopt a plan in December 2010 for submission to the 2011 legislature.

In anticipation of the master plan, CCHE last week approved Skaggs’ suggestion to automatically renew most college performance contracts, which would have expired this year.

The idea already has sparked lively discussion, particularly among college presidents, with whom Skaggs met the week of May 24. “I presented it with interesting results,” Skaggs told CCHE members on June 4. “There was some pushback.”

Some presidents, faced with falling off a financial cliff in July 2011, feel an 18-month study will take too long and that action on college funding needs to be taken earlier in 2010.

University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton explained the presidents’ point of view to commissioners at the same meeting. “It is not that the leaders of the public higher education institutions are against planning … I think we all appreciate the intent.” Norton noted there was a higher ed summit two years ago that presidents didn’t think accomplished much. And, “the other major element is the time involved … we have to prepare for the cliff. … We know there will be intense pressure and need in the 2010 session” to address campus financial needs.

Several college presidents this year backed an unsuccessful bill that would have allowed college boards to set their own tuition rates and administer financial aid as they chose. (Tuition ceilings currently are set by the legislature, and the DHE allocates state financial aid.) Ritter opposed the bill, groundwork hadn’t been laid with legislators and it went nowhere. Neither did a related plan to allow community and some four-year colleges to raise revenue from property taxes.

Skaggs told EdNews “the governor is disinclined to raise that [tuition flexibility] next session,” adding that “the governor is of the mind that this is not the time to go laissez faire on tuition.” (Ritter’s up for re-election in November 2010.)

All this studying eventually will filter down to the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions, and perhaps to voters in November 2011.

State political and education leaders increasingly feel that is the appropriate time to propose a constitutional amendment or amendments to alter the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, Amendment 23 and other constitutional requirements, and/or to propose new revenue sources for education and other state programs.

The state’s financial clock is ticking because 2011 is when Referendum C (the five-year window during which the state can spend “extra” revenues under TABOR), one factor in Amendment 23 (the multi-part formula requiring annual increases in K-12 spending) and federal stimulus money all expire.

Despite that, there appears to be less interest in going to voters in November 2010, partly because the ballot will be crowded with the contests for governor and U.S. senator, most legislative seats and who-knows-how-many other ballot measures.

Some legislators believe a Colorado Supreme Court decision earlier this year allows them to raise revenue without voter approval by repealing existing tax exemptions, and that tactic is expected to at least be debated in 2010 as an alternative to asking voters for money.

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