Senior lawmakers today said they will try to kill a proposal to tie college funding to performance measures such as graduation rates, because they believe it would strip the state's colleges of their independence and give too much power to bureaucrats.
The State Council of Higher Education is pushing for a system in which Virginia's 15 colleges would compete for new state funding. Council officials say the system--the first of its kind in the nation--would reward improvement and make higher education funding more rational.
But Del. Alan A. Diamonstein (D-Newport News), a key legislator on higher education issues, vowed at a hearing today to defeat the proposal.
"I violently oppose" the funding plan, Diamonstein said. "All the individuality . . . will be out the window."
Several other lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee also criticized the idea. Their opposition signals trouble for the plan in next year's legislative session, and possibly a battle with Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). Lawmakers covet their ability to direct dollars to various state colleges.
Aides to Gilmore, who has pushed for more careful spending by the state's colleges, offered conditional support for the council's proposal.
"We'll look at it," said spokeswoman Lila Young. "We're cautiously optimistic that it, or something like it, might make colleges more accountable and more affordable."
Diamonstein is taking the unusual step of asking each of the colleges to submit separate budgets to a legislative panel to circumvent the plan by the higher education council, an 11-member board appointed by the governor.
Despite legislative opposition, the college budgets proposed by the council will reflect the new funding plan, said William B. Allen, the council's executive director. He also disputed lawmakers' assertions, saying the plan would actually give the colleges more autonomy and a more predictable source of revenue.
The plan would set a base funding level for each college that would grow at the rate of inflation. Additional funding would go into an incentive pool that the colleges would compete for each year.
Allen said the competition would be on measures specific to each college. A college with a high graduation rate would have to do even better to score points. Another college with a history of losing students between the freshman and sophomore years could earn points by improvements in that area.
In every case, Allen said, the colleges would have a large say in what measures are used and how. The grants also would need the approval of the governor and the General Assembly.
"It's decentralizing, and it is non-micromanaging," Allen said. "We do trust the institutions."
He had a hard time selling that point to the House Appropriations Committee.
Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), the committee co-chairman, said he feared the proposal would dilute the individuality in a system of higher education that allowed five of his children to happily attend five state colleges.
"I'm very skeptical of the whole thing," Callahan said. "Anything [Allen] does is going to have to come through this committee."
But some college officials were more supportive of the idea. Maurice Sherrens, senior vice president at George Mason University, said that college may benefit from a review of the budgets. He said older institutions tend to fare better than George Mason, which became an independent college in 1972. "We are supportive of the block grant process if we can work out the details," Sherrens said.