- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2003

RICHMOND — More than 12,500 college students have signed a petition urging Gov. Mark Warner and Virginia lawmakers to increase higher education funding by at least $400 million in the next state budget.

The signatures were collected by Virginia21, created this year to galvanize the state’s 18- to 24-year-old voters.

“According to a prominent state senator, nothing scares a politician more than a registered voter, and we have taken that message to heart,” Jesse Ferguson, Virginia21 executive director, said in remarks prepared for a news conference at the state Capitol yesterday.

The $400 million figure is well above the proposed $144 million higher education funding increase in Mr. Warner’s state budget proposal. Virginia21 did not offer a plan to secure the additional money.

Mr. Ferguson said the group’s immediate goal was instead to stress that education should be a budget priority. He called Mr. Warner’s proposal a “step in the right direction.”

Mr. Ferguson faulted lawmakers for creating what he labeled “the most critical financial crisis in a generation” in the state’s higher education system. He also called higher education central to Virginia’s economic health.

James Ukrop, chairman of the Ukrop’s grocery chain and a member of Virginia21’s board of directors, called universities vital for businesses. “It makes a big difference for how attractive it is to come to Virginia,” he said.

Virginia21 is present on all public, four-year college and university campuses in the state except Virginia Military Institute. The group plans to expand to public community colleges, allowing it to ultimately reach all the state’s roughly 300,000 public higher-education students.

The group gathered the signatures primarily through the Internet, organizing in a campaign dubbed Fund Virginia’s Future.

“Students have gotten involved,” said Brant Snyder, Virginia21 steering committee member and Virginia Tech student body president. “They have gotten involved with a purpose.”

Using figures drawn from government hearings, studies and meetings, Virginia21 organizers called the $400 million figure the minimum needed to provide adequate education at colleges and universities. They warned that without more funding, 1,470 fewer faculty members and 2,800 fewer courses would be available in the 2003-4 school year.

Warner spokesman Kevin Hall said the governor acknowledges higher education cuts to help close a $6 billion budget shortfall created undesirable results. He listed among them statewide average tuition increases of 20 percent at public colleges and universities, as well as the departure of leading faculty members from some institutions.

Higher education received about $1.1 billion in state funding for operating costs through the budget now in effect.

“Our budget would add another $144 million in new funding,” Mr. Hall said of Mr. Warner’s higher education spending plan through fiscal year 2006. “And the governor acknowledges that that’s a start on the $400 million that’s been identified.”

Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax County Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said Virginia’s overall education system has several needs beyond those Virginia21 has identified. Meeting all of them, he added, would require the state to boost spending by nearly $1 billion annually.

“We definitely need to keep our higher education on track because that, along with elementary and secondary education, is one of the big things that attracts industry to Virginia,” said Mr. Dillard, who also is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “So this is one of the things we can’t afford to ignore, just like our transportation system.”

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