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Nearly two years later, Centennial Scholars proposal going nowhere

In her 2008 State of the State Address, Gov. Janet Napolitano proposed providing, despite the state’s growing economic challenges, free college tuition to Arizona high school students who get good grades, perform community service and stay out of trouble.

Dubbed the Centennial Scholars Program, it would have started in 2012, the year Arizona marks its 100th anniversary as a state.

Nearly two years later, Napolitano has moved on to Washington, bills that would have established Centennial Scholars have gone nowhere and the Arizona Board of Regents, tasked with trying to find private funding for the program, isn’t optimistic.

Andrea Smiley, a spokeswoman for the Board of Regents, said it’s unlikely the program will be in place in 2012, if ever.

“Universities have been dealt a very difficult hand,” she said. “With so few private funders, it’s hard to introduce any new program at this time.”

Napolitano asked the regents to seek private funding after two bills foundered during the 2008 legislative session.

As proposed in the 2009 legislative session by Rep. David Schapira, a Tempe Democrat, Centennial Scholars would require participants to sign agreements between eighth grade and sophomore year stating that they would maintain a 3.0 grade point average, refrain from unlawful activity and apply to a state public university during their senior year.

In return, they would get eight semesters of free tuition to a public university.

Schapira’s bill wasn’t taken up in committee.

Former state Rep. Jennifer J. Burns, an Avra Valley Republican, who headed the House Committee on Higher Education in 2008, said she supported Napolitano’s plan because it would help students focus on college early on.

“It would make them aware that access to college is available to them,” she said.

However, Burns said state government’s goal right now, with the budget deep in the red, should be maintaining existing programs.

Bill Blong, executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association, said students in smaller communities would benefit from a program such as Centennial Scholars because they don’t have the same opportunities as students in large cities.

“In rural school districts, a lot of times they are isolated from libraries, museums, performing arts and things like that,” he said. “So they don’t always get that well-rounded education.”

Robert Klee, superintendent of the Antelope Union High School District in Wellton, said he saw Centennial Scholars as a potential motivator for his students and a way to help offset disadvantages such as lower family incomes in rural areas.

“Those kids that live in poverty don’t have a chance to go to college even if they have great potential,” he said.

Klee said it’s disappointing that the program probably won’t happen, but he said that’s understandable given the state of the economy.

“It’s tough just trying to keep existing programs and teachers in place with the current financial situation,” he said.

A spokesman for Napolitano, now secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the former governor had no comment.

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