Louisiana governors and lawmakers typically shy away from controversial issues during election-year legislative sessions. "Don't wake anybody up" is a good way to describe the prevailing wisdom. That's not the case this year, however, probably because an anticipated $1.6 billion budget shortfall has forced Gov. Bobby Jindal and state lawmakers to confront some longstanding fiscal and institutional demons. Fortunately, in the realm of higher education, several lawmakers have responded with bold, far-reaching proposals. Lawmakers are considering four specific reforms that warrant strong public support. Here's a closer look at each:
• "LaGRAD 2.0." Last year, lawmakers passed the Louisiana Granting Resources and Autonomy for Diplomas Act (LaGRAD), which was an important first step toward encouraging higher standards and better performance at public universities. House Bill 549, by Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, builds upon the fundamentals established by the LaGRAD Act, also authored by Tucker. Dubbed "LaGRAD 2.0," HB 549 strengthens the accountability provisions of LaGRAD, provides greater flexibility to successful institutions (which ultimately will save money) and improves transparency. Among its provisions are clearer performance metrics tied to student success and heightened scrutiny, transparency, tracking and evaluation requirements.
LaGRAD 2.0 sailed through the House and now awaits Senate committee action. We have only one concern about the measure in its current posture: A House floor amendment exempts the LSU Health Sciences Center from the bill's provisions. We suspect the amendment was an attempt to keep the new LSU teaching hospital in New Orleans under the state's procurement code, which is a good idea. If that is the case, the amendment is overly broad; it should be rewritten to focus on the hospital so that LSU's professional schools can still earn the fiscal autonomy afforded by LaGRAD. We otherwise wholeheartedly support LaGRAD 2.0.
• UNO-SUNO Merger. Perhaps no other higher-ed bill has drawn more fire than the proposal to merge the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO). Here again, Tucker has taken the lead with House Bill 537, which moves both institutions out of the LSU and Southern University systems and into the University of Louisiana System — and then merges them into the new University of Louisiana at New Orleans on UNO's campus. State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, has filed an identical bill in the Senate. Tucker's bill is up for a House vote Monday, May 16. Appel's measure awaits action in the Senate Education Committee this Thursday, May 19.
In addition to merging UNO and SUNO, both bills bring Delgado Community College into the mix by establishing a Delgado branch at UNO's campus to facilitate admissions and placement of all incoming freshmen. Though not perfect, the bills are a giant step in the right direction. Above all, they recognize the need to create coordinated, world-class postsecondary education opportunities for students in the New Orleans area.
• Single Higher-Ed Board. For years, we have urged passage of a constitutional amendment abolishing Louisiana's five higher-ed governing boards and replacing them with a single board. House Bill 391, by Speaker Tucker, accomplishes that goal. The present setup is wasteful and duplicative. Tucker's bill awaits action in the House Education Committee. We urge its passage by the required two-thirds of each legislative chamber and in a statewide referendum.
• Enhanced TOPS Dedication. Several bills have been filed seeking to dedicate a greater share of the state's Millennium Trust Fund to the TOPS college scholarship program. The measures that appear to have the most momentum are Senate Bills 52 and 53 by Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego. SB 53 is a constitutional amendment; SB 52 is enabling legislation. Together, they would dedicate 100 percent of the annual Tobacco Settlement Proceeds (which go into the trust fund) to TOPS — once the trust fund balance reaches $1.38 billion. The fund is expected to hit that mark soon, meaning money would be available for TOPS in the next fiscal year. TOPS is a rare state program in that it is both successful and popular. Alario's bills will give TOPS a dedicated — and predictable — revenue stream to help keep it afloat for decades.
Together, these four measures prove that crisis fosters opportunity. We hope lawmakers don't miss this chance to take some bold steps for higher-ed reform.