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Rep. Llew Jones (R-Conrad)

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, claps during a recent House floor session.

A proposed tuition freeze will likely be a point of debate as lawmakers consider Gov. Steve Bullock's request for an additional $26.8 million for campuses of the Montana University System — a 7.1 percent increase for the biennium.

Monday, the education appropriations subcommittee of the Montana Legislature heard an overview of the proposed budget along with comments from lawmakers that shed light on the days ahead.

After the meeting, Chair Llew Jones shared some of the public higher education issues he anticipates legislators will discuss in the coming weeks. Jones, a Republican from Conrad, said lawmakers likely will debate whether more taxpayer money should go toward a tuition freeze — and the parameters for a freeze should they agree one is prudent.

"Money is a scarce resource, right?" Jones said.

According to the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, funding reductions from 1992 to 2006 "forced large increases in tuition, making the relationship of tuition to median income out of sync."

However, in an overview about student access to education, the Commissioner's Office notes the Montana University System ranks No. 1 in the West for the smallest percentage increase in 12 years, with a series of tuition freezes.

Jones also said he believes legislators will take up the governor's proposal to spend $5 million on need-based aid and adult learners. Jones said lawmakers are likely to debate the right balance for scholarships based on need versus merit; he said currently no money is dedicated in the proposed budget to scholarships based on merit.

Private foundations do offer scholarships based on academic merit.

At the meeting, Rep. Tom Woods said one difficulty ahead is that legislators will, on a daily basis, try to place a value on education, a task he considers impossible.

"This is going to be a very frustrating process for me," said Woods, an educator who has taught at Montana State University.

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Woods elaborated on his reason for frustration in a phone call after the meeting. The Democrat from Bozeman said higher education has been treated like vocational training the past couple of generations, but that's not its only purpose; it's also exposing students to the humanities and driving research that allows people to push boundaries instead of see cultural stagnation.

"We're imposing a corporate model on higher education, and that really frustrates the hell out of me," said Woods, who described himself as "a bleeding heart liberal."

In other matters likely up for debate, Jones noted funding formulas and caps.

The appropriations subcommittee hearing on education continues Tuesday and is available via live feed.

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