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Voucher Plan Proposed for Public Colleges

Tom Banse
01/24/2003

Over the years, you've probably heard debate about providing school vouchers. In 1996, Washingtonians soundly rejected a ballot measure that would have given elementary through high school students vouchers to attend the public or private school of their choice. But now an unlikely leader is taking the idea to a whole new level. The president of Eastern Washington University is proposing vouchers for the college and university system. Correspondent Tom Banse reports hard times are making policymakers think "outside the box."

EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT STEVE JORDAN PRESENTS COLLEGE VOUCHERS UNDER THE PROVOCATIVE TITLE,"A BAD IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME." ADDRESSING THE WASHINGTON SENATE, HE BREAKS THE ICE BY PUTTING A BRIGHT RED SHOOTING TARGET ON HIS CHEST AND BACK. Sound: [Dr. Jordan puts on target/laughter] THE LAWMAKERS STOP LAUGHING WHEN THE UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT FROM CHENEY, NEAR SPOKANE, OUTLINES THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF HIS REVOLUTIONARY PROPOSAL. Jordan: "How would it work?" DR. JORDAN SAYS HE WOULD TAKE THE TOTAL AMOUNT WASHINGTON SPENDS ON HIGHER EDUCATION, BACK OUT FINANCIAL AID, AND THEN DIVIDE THE REMAINING AMOUNT AMONG THE TOTAL STUDENT BODY. THIS YEAR, THAT WOULD YIELD AN ANNUAL VOUCHER AMOUNT OF ABOUT THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS. Jordan: "That dollar voucher would become an entitlement, a dollar entitlement to any student, any citizen of the state to go to whatever institution they would choose to." AND JORDAN'S THINKING, A POPULAR ENTITLEMENT WOULD BE MUCH HARDER FOR LAWMAKERS TO CUT THAN THE WAY COLLEGE FUNDING GOES OUT NOW. UNIVERSITIES WOULD BE SET FREE FROM DIRECT STATE CONTROL, NO LONGER DEPENDENT ON THE LEGISLATURE TO SET THEIR ENROLLMENTS, TUITION, AND DEGREE OFFERINGS. Jordan: "You then incentivize institutions to create their market niche, to develop the array of programs that they want to offer, to go out and compete for students. And what they then have to do is to say, 'In order to be successful, what do I have to charge in addition to the voucher amount in order to be able to offer that program?'" THE LEGISLATIVE REACTION RANGES FROM CURIOUS TO ENTHUSIASTIC. COUNT EPHRATA REPUBLICAN SENATOR JOYCE MULLIKEN AMONG THE MOST INTERESTED. Mulliken: "I do think the competition will drive the cost down for those students. More students would have access to these higher education degrees. So I applaud your approach. I'm interested in continuing discussion on it." STUDENTS HAVE A LOT OF QUESTIONS BEFORE THEY'LL GET BEHIND THE IDEA. ARMANDO MUNGIA ATTENDS EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY. Mungia: "At first glance, the whole idea is really intriguing to students. It's really inviting." BUT MUNGIA WORRIES WHETHER HIS SCHOOL AND THE OTHERS MIGHT BE OVERWHELMED WITH APPLICANTS ARMED WITH THEIR NEW VOUCHERS. Mungia: "I worry that a student, now that he has an entitlement, and he is not really sure that he wants to attend higher education. He says, 'Well, I'm going to check it out. I'm going to try it just for the heck of it.'" MUNGIA WORRIES THAT FELLOW WILL TAKE AWAY THE SPOT OF A MORE DESERVING STUDENT. WASHINGTON'S MAJOR RESEARCH UNIVERSITIES, THE U-W AND W-S-U, FIGURE THEY'D GET LESS PUBLIC FUNDING UNDER A VOUCHER PLAN. W-S-U'S ASSISTANT LOBBYIST JANE YUNG DENNIE WARNS THAT COULD COST SLOTS IN IMPORTANT BUT EXPENSIVE PROGRAMS LIKE NURSING OR VETERINARY MEDICINE. Yung Dennie: "What it incentivizes us to do is to offer the low-cost, high numbers of students type of programs and so there will be great competition for things like English, you know, philosophy, those kinds of things that tend to be low cost." LAST YEAR, THE LIBERTARIAN CANDIDATE FOR OREGON GOVERNOR MADE VOUCHERS A CENTRAL CAMPAIGN ISSUE -- VOUCHERS BOTH FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND THE UNIVERSITY SYSTEM. HE GOT 5 PERCENT OF THE VOTE. IN WASHINGTON STATE, THE SENATE HIGHER ED COMMITTEE INDICATES THEY'LL LET COLORADO TAKE THE PLUNGE FIRST. COLORADO'S GOVERNOR AND UNIVERSITY SYSTEM ARE ASKING THEIR LEGISLATURE TO APPROVE COLLEGE VOUCHERS THIS WINTER. I'M TOM BANSE IN OLYMPIA.
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