- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner yesterday said reforming the state university system will be a top priority as he finishes his term.

Mr. Warner said he is considering proposals that would create charter status for some universities, a system that would save money for the state and the schools.

“The higher education debate is going to be a major focus,” the Democratic governor said during a luncheon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “This is going to be a great and necessary discussion. … This is going to be resolved next spring.”

In a wide-ranging discussion, Mr. Warner had some strong advice for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign, saying the Massachusetts Democrat should focus more on jobs, the economy, health care and deficit reduction, and abandon attacks on President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

Instead of “refighting Vietnam and the entire focus on Iraq,” the Kerry campaign “ought to be about how you win the national war against terrorism,” he said.

“I think the debate about how we got there is over and I think the debate now is about how we finish the job. I don’t think there are very many Americans that don’t believe that we have a responsibility to finish the job in Iraq,” he said.

He added that he hopes a Kerry administration “would govern from a centrist position.”

The governor, who this year became chairman of the National Governors Association, also said he wants to work on reforming the senior year of high school, which he considers a “wasted” year for many students.

Today, he will present a plan that would offer college-bound seniors the ability to earn a full semester’s worth of college credit while in high school. “That’s the equivalent of giving the parent a $5,000 voucher,” he said.

Some states have “bits and pieces” of such a program but none has formalized it among their state colleges, he said.

Mr. Warner, whose term ends in January 2006, said the final third of his administration will likely address transportation and health care issues, but higher education — which he said is underfunded — will be the key topic.

Three of the state’s prestigious schools — William and Mary, Virginia Tech and University of Virginia — are proposing to redefine their status as charter institutions. The designation would give them more autonomy in funding, enrollment and personnel.

Mr. Warner said he does not oppose the idea, but added that the state’s long-term interests must be represented during negotiations and that the schools must commit to increasing their research activities.

“It’s got good ideas, but there’s a lot of tough questions,” he said. “I think there’s some value in here. But you’ve got to not only show me you can save money, you’ve got to also show me what is it going to do to the rest of the state work force in terms of employee benefits, in terms of health care costs.”

Students attending community colleges should be able to easily transfer into state universities, he said.

The charter university issue will be debated in statewide hearings and then taken up by the General Assembly during the next legislative session, which begins in January, said Mr. Warner, 49.

House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican, endorsed the idea of charter universities last month, as have many other top lawmakers.

Meanwhile, Mr. Warner — one of the stars of the centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council — said Mr. Kerry faces an “uphill” struggle for votes in Virginia but can win the state in November. No Democrat has carried the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

However, he acknowledged that Mr. Kerry has slipped in the past month and said his campaign may have succumbed to “overconfidence” when he led Mr. Bush in the polls throughout much of this year.

“It’s not a good August,” he said.

The Kerry campaign has recently taken advice from former President Bill Clinton, an ex-DLC chairman, and has added former Clinton campaign advisers.

As for his own political future, Mr. Warner said, “I’m not going to rule out running for something else.”

Under Virginia law, governors cannot serve back-to-back terms.

A telecommunications mogul, Mr. Warner took office in 2002. In 1996, he lost a bid to unseat U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican. The two men are not related.

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