State surpluses a boon to education
In Massachusetts, the state Senate Higher Education Committee approved legislation Feb. 8 that would inject more than $400 million over the next seven years into the state's 29-campus university system — a 7.7 percent increase nearly double the previous year's increase. The legislation would require that tuition and fee increases not exceed the rate of inflation. "Right now the economy is better than it's been, so we can finally have a positive conversation with the Legislature about spending priorities" for state higher education, University of Massachusetts Chancellor John V. Lombardi told Stateline.org . It's not yet like the boom times of the late 1990s, when cash-flush states invested billions of new dollars in education, said Mike Griffith, an education finance expert for the Education Commission on the States (ECS), a Denver-based nonprofit education research organization. But state revenue projections are up in nearly every state, and education once again tops politicians' spending agendas. "It's looking like it's going to be an even better year all around for almost every state, with the exception being the Gulf Coast and Michigan, which at best will have a flat year in education funding," Griffith said. Although state K-12 spending has held steady in recent years, teacher's salaries have not kept up with inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan think tank. An analysis by EPI found that the total increase in teachers' salaries from 1996 to 2004 was less than 1 percent when adjusted for inflation. Besides Hawaii, Arizona and Maine, several other states also are considering raising teacher salaries, sometimes accompanied by reforms in the way teachers are paid. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) wants to raise teacher salaries 6 percent statewide. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) proposed raising all teacher salaries 5 percent, and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) proposed 4 percent teacher raises. Governors in at least five other states — Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Washington and Wisconsin — also proposed increasing teacher pay or adopting so-called "merit pay" plans that would base teachers' salaries on student performance rather than seniority. Higher-education spending increased in 28 states by 5 percent or more this fiscal year, with the strongest growth in the West, Southwest and Southeast, according to the Center for the Study of Education Policy. Still, four states - Missouri, Mississippi, Illinois and West Virginia - cut state aid to colleges, compared to eight states last year. West Virginia for the second year in a row reported the greatest drop in state funding for higher education - down 6 percent to $319 million. Some education experts expect to see stronger gains this year, especially in states with tight gubernatorial races. "In hotly contested states like California and Maryland, gubernatorial campaigns are putting higher education in a more prominent position," said Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities . Both Schwarzenegger in California and Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich , Republican incumbents who have trailed Democratic challengers in recent polls, have announced proposals for major investments in higher education. Schwarzenegger has promised to provide funding to repeal recent tuition increases of 8 percent for undergraduates and 10 percent for graduate students in California public colleges and universities. Ehrlich has promised to boost higher education funding by 14.5 percent, or $1.5 billion — more than double last year's 6 percent increase - with most of the money going to building and maintenance projects. He also proposed a 28 percent increase — $19.5 million — for need-based college scholarships. Both governors' Democratic challengers have responded with proposals intended to one-up their opponents, Reindl said. One of Schwarzenegger's Democratic opponents, State Controller Steven Wesley , has proposed forgiving student loans for the first two years of college for any student who graduates on time. One of Ehrlich's Democratic challengers, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley , criticized the governor for not proposing a tuition freeze for the 13-campus University of Maryland system, where students face a 4.5 percent tuition jump next year. Because of the state's struggling economy, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), who is running for re-election, has made education central to her recovery plan for the state. Granholm outlined several major education proposals in her state of the state address last month, including calls for increased funding for early education and after-school programs. She also asked the Legislature to approve $4,000 merit scholarships for every Michigan high school student who goes to a state college.
"Our new Merit Award Scholarship will create a Michigan Promise right now — a promise that every child in Michigan will - for the first time in this state's history - have the financial means to go to college," Granholm said in her speech.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens , a Republican who is term-limited this year, spent much of his two terms in office at odds with state higher education leaders. But last November, Owens campaigned with college officials in favor of suspending a 1992 state constitutional spending cap, a measure voters approved in part because of widespread concern that the spending limits were starving public colleges. Colorado's spending on higher education had dropped by 20 percent in the past five years. With the spending cap temporarily lifted, Owens proposed in his state of the state address last month to cap college tuition increases at 2.5 percent and to increase the state's per-student stipend from $2,400 to $2,580. "All governors and elected officials start thinking about their legacy at the end of their term, and Owens is really looking at how he's going to be viewed," Reindl said.