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Perry is getting traction for higher ed changes

Governor gained credibility when he proposed a $10,000 college degree and schools actually made that happen

10/11/2012 9:12 PM

10/12/2012 7:41 AM

Gov. Rick Perry is pushing hard for higher education initiatives he wants included in the coming legislative session, and he has reason to feel encouraged.

Favorable response is a happy, if somewhat unfamiliar, experience for Perry this year. We don't need to dwell on his brief and embarrassing campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Perry met Wednesday with editorial directors and writers from the state's five largest newspapers -- those in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. The meeting was in the newly restored Governor's Mansion in Austin and was the first such get-together since he declined invitations to meet with newspaper editorial boards during his 2010 re-election campaign.

The attention Perry's higher ed ideas have received in recent weeks has come partly because Perry is nothing if not persistent. Love him or hate him, give him credit for being a pick-himself-up, dust-himself-off, dive-back-in kind of guy.

That's a political asset. The ideas he is pushing now are not new; some he's been talking about for years. His proposal to change the formula for college and university funding, basing each school's state revenue on how many students it graduates in four years rather than how many are enrolled, got hostile on-campus reaction two years ago.

"They were ready to lynch me, or at least string me up in effigy or whatever," Perry said. The idea upset apple carts in institutions long set on funding that, if not certain in its amount, at least came through a familiar process and was subject to political influence.

But now the unrest over Perry's proposed funding change has died down, giving the governor a political opening to tweak the idea and bring it back again.

Perhaps even more significantly, one of Perry's proposals from two years ago has been surprisingly successful: He challenged schools to find ways to deliver a bachelor's degree for just $10,000. Ten colleges and universities, including the University of Texas at Arlington, have met the challenge.

That gives Perry higher ed stripes, credibility that makes his other proposals more likely to be heard. More people have to listen, because the next thing he proposes might happen, too.

There's at least one other crucial component of that credibility this time around: Perry has been careful not to overreach.

That change in the higher ed funding formula he's been pushing? Now he's proposing it should be the basis for only 10 percent of each school's state appropriation.

Some in the Legislature who want to focus funding on four-year graduation rates rather than enrollment say the change should apply to 25 percent of the state allocation. Perry says he picked 10 percent because it's more "doable," meaning it stands a better chance of getting the votes necessary for passage.

Some other highlights from Wednesday's meeting with editorial directors and writers:

The rest of the governor's top agenda topics for the 2013 legislative session will be water, electrical power-generation capacity and transportation infrastructure. Perry looks at all of them as crucial in attracting business and industrial investment (in a word, jobs) to Texas.

More power-generating capacity is absolutely essential to ensure uninterrupted service for commercial users, Perry said. But building that capacity means finding a way to ensure a proper return on power plant investments. Perry doesn't have a solid answer for how to do that.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has said this is the year the Legislature will pass a bill giving state funding vouchers to students to attend private schools. Perry praises Patrick and his recent appointment as chairman of the Senate Education Committee. But he said a voucher proposal is "not nearly" far enough along yet to say it's a done legislative deal.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram / Arlington and Northeast Tarrant County.

817-390-7830

Twitter: @mnorman9

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