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Originally published March 19, 2013 at 8:04 PM | Page modified March 20, 2013 at 11:16 AM

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State senators pledge $300M more for higher ed

State Senate leaders pledged Tuesday to increase funding for higher education by $300 million but did not say how to pay for it.

The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff

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OLYMPIA — A group of Washington state senators vowed Tuesday to increase funding for higher education by $300 million but declined to say how they would get the money at a time when lawmakers are struggling to balance the budget.

Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner, who developed the plan supported by a GOP-dominated coalition, said it is possible to write a budget that balances state spending while increasing funding for state colleges and universities. He said it will be a matter of prioritizing where government dollars go.

“We’re going to make higher education a priority,” Baumgartner said.

Lawmakers already face a more than $1 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget cycle and are separately under court order to expand funding for K-12 education.

The senators also propose to require a 3 percent reduction in tuition for in-state students. They say this would help manage the long-term financial concerns in the state’s prepaid-tuition program, known as GET, for Guaranteed Education Tuition.

Senate Democrats said they were encouraged that the GOP-leaning majority is embracing increased funding but want to better understand the details of the proposal.

“The bottom line is, we’re open to the conversation — We’re not sure the numbers will add up,” said state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.

Margaret Shepherd, director of state relations for the University of Washington, was also waiting for more specific details. However, both she and Frockt said the $300 million appears to largely include money already expected to go to the institutions for general growth.

Shepherd said the proposal adds only about $75 million in new money to the system and that gain is offset by the loss in tuition dollars. Frockt said he thought it would only add about $42 million to $58 million, after the loss of tuition dollars was factored in.

“It will not provide adequate funding for the investments that we need to make in order to provide a high-quality education for our students,” Shepherd said.

Washington’s university presidents said earlier this year that the schools would freeze tuition for two years if lawmakers would add $225 million in extra funding to the system.

The coalition’s plan would award $50 million of the new higher-education money to schools based on how well they did on certain performance metrics, such as the number of undergraduates in degrees such as science or engineering, the retention rate of first-year students, and the average time it takes to complete an undergraduate degree.

Baumgartner said the aim was for the money to go to programs that directly benefit students, and not to faculty salary increases. Most state college faculty have not had a raise in four years; the UW has said that raising faculty salaries this year is a priority.

Frockt also said the $50 million for improving performance is too low to provide much incentive. “I think if you spread it across the system like peanut butter, it’s not that significant,” said Frockt, who himself proposed a bill — which died — that would have created an incentive performance fund.

The proposal would also expand the State Need Grant, the state’s largest grant program for low-income students, by 7 percent, to serve an additional 4,600 students. The State Need Grant currently serves about 70,000 students, but the state has estimated that 30,000 additional students qualify but receive no money.

Associated Press writer Mike Baker and Seattle Times higher-education reporter Katherine Long contributed to this report.

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