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Lawmaker targets state funding of community college

The chairman of the House’s higher education committee is eyeing a way to prevent community colleges from spending state funding on recreational classes that are not part of any degree or certification program.

Such classes, according to a letter sent by the Arizona Tax Research Association to House and Senate leaders, include: Developing Self Esteem; Raft the Grand Canyon; Phoenix Zoo Lights; Quilting; and Mystery Dinner Theater.

“We’re talking about classes that are purely recreational classes,” Rep. Laura Knaperek, chair of the House Universities, Community Colleges and Technology Committee said. “[They are] purely a community class that a person takes for fun, for relaxation, what have you, and are not intended to be transferred for any kind of job-related degree or certification.”

Ms. Knaperek, a District 17 Republican, said she is not looking to prevent the community colleges from offering the classes, only from using state money to subsidize them. A college, she said, has every right to seek the community’s approval to use money generated by the primary property tax rate to pay for such classes.

ATRA also said in its Aug. 17 letter to House and Senate officials that it recognizes each community college offers courses that are of particular interest to the members of that community.

“However, individual participants should pay most, if not all, of the costs of the course through tuition and fees,” ATRA President Kevin McCarthy wrote.

In the letter, Mr. McCarthy says the state faces the “tremendous challenge” of keeping up with funding for education, health care, corrections and law enforcement. The money given to community colleges, he continues, needs to be spent so that it best benefits the state.

“…[A] weekend rafting trip through the Grand Canyon should not have the same priority for state funding as nursing education,” he wrote. “Yet, student for student, hour for hour, that is precisely the situation.”

How colleges are funded

Community colleges and universities are funded through full-time student equivalent counts. Essentially, the school receives funding from the state on a per-student basis. Because of that, Mr. McCarthy said in a Nov. 7 interview, it is difficult to know how much state money is being spent on the courses unless the colleges provide that information, something he says they haven’t done.

“We don’t know [how much it costs] because they haven’t been able to tell us,” he said. “If it’s a million [dollars], it’s too much. If it’s 20 million [dollars], it’s way too much.

“Whatever the amount is, it’s something that shouldn’t be going on.”

Kathy Boyle, executive director of the Arizona Community College Association, said most of the classes listed in the ATRA letter are paid for by tuition and class fees, not state funding. However, she said her group is willing to work with Ms. Knaperek in forming legislation.

“We are aware of the issue and we don’t want to see misuse of any of those funds,” Ms. Boyle said.

Ms. Knaperek said she isn’t sure how many of the state’s community colleges provide these recreational courses that have no real educational value.

“I just want to make sure that it’s not being done, that they understand clearly what the expectation is,” she said.

She said she also received letters on the issue from some constituents and from Gila County, complaining about state funds being wasted on recreational classes.

The state, Ms. Knaperek said, needs to spend its money wisely.

“I’d like to see us find better ways and more efficient ways to fund higher education,” she said. “And when you do that, you’ve got to make sure that you’re not spending dollars on things that they shouldn’t be spent on, and I think this is one of them.”

The bill is still in draft form, Ms Knaperek said, and will be undergoing revisions before the session begins in January. She said she plans on getting input from the community colleges in the near future.

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