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Originally published Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 4:10 PM

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State lawmakers shouldn't jettison Higher Education Coordinating Board

The state Legislature should not abolish the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board. It should rebuild anemic support of state universities.

STATE lawmakers would rather tinker with regulatory roles in higher education than focus on the urgent need to keep tuition affordable and improve state support for universities.

Constraints posed by historic budget challenges should not provide temptation to become distracted by peripheral issues. Yet that is happening in Olympia.

Abolishing the Higher Education Coordinating Board, as Gov. Chris Gregoire and Sen. Scott White, D-Seattle, propose, is a side issue that could detract from critical tuition, financial aid and funding issues.

It also is not a very good idea. White touts his bill as a response to the search for government efficiencies. But the HEC Board's important tasks in strategic planning and coordinating financial aid would be transferred to state agencies, likely growing rather than shrinking costs and bureaucracy.

More importantly, losing the citizens board would mean the loss of an important public perspective.

The landscape has changed considerably since the HEC Board was created 25 years ago, leading to questions about whether the agency has adapted or has enough authority to make real change. Fair enough. But along with Gregoire's proposed education department to oversee K-12 and higher education, legislators are talking about governance when they ought to be acting to protect our universities from additional budget cuts that further erode quality and access to higher education.

Concerns around higher ed lend themselves more to basic survival right now than future matters of growth and expansions. State funding has been reduced by 50 percent just when more students than ever before are seeking college.

Tuition increases are the Legislature's version of a pea and shell game, perpetuating the fraudulent notion that tuition makes up for draconian budget cuts.

Legislators in crisis mode must better balance the tasks of thoughtful planning for the future and addressing the urgent issues of today.

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