Nixon calls for Access Missouri cuts

The governor also proposed combining the state's education departments.
Gov. Jay Nixon speaks Wednesday at the Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis during President Barack Obama's visit. Nixon proposed a plan to cut state-funded scholarships for private school students Thursday.

More than 12,000 students statewide would lose their scholarships funded by the state if the legislature acts upon a proposal the governor made last week.

In a speech to business leaders Wednesday in Springfield, Gov. Jay Nixon proposed completely eliminating state-funded scholarships for students attending private colleges and universities. Nixon said the state should make the cuts to reduce its $500 million budget deficit.

"Missouri has wonderful colleges and universities, both public and private," Nixon said. "But in times like these, we simply can't continue to subsidize the choice to attend a private school."

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste confirmed Thursday the governor wants to completely do away with state-funded scholarships, such as the Access Missouri program.

Previously, Nixon had only talked about reducing awards to private university students to be equal to those given to public university students. Access Missouri gives private school students between $2,000 and $4,600 per year. Public school students receive between $1,000 and $2,150.

It will be up to the legislature to decide whether students receiving the scholarships would be grandfathered out or lose them immediately, Nixon spokesman Sam Murphy said.

Missouri Department of Higher Education spokeswoman Kathy Love said 1,781 private school students statewide receive Bright Flight scholarships and 11,888 students receive Access Missouri Scholarships for private school.

Private colleges were quick to condemn the proposal.

Fontbonne University in St. Louis spokeswoman Elizabeth Hise said the school has more than 500 students receiving Access Missouri grants. She said cuts in the need-based aid unfairly burdens private school students.

"We realize that times are very difficult economically, but we don't feel that Missouri's budget should be balanced on the backs of its college students, whether they choose to attend independent schools or public schools, especially those students with the greatest need," Hise said in an e-mail.

According to numbers from the governor's office, the state spent $52.3 million on scholarships to private school students in 2009. Nixon did not propose any cuts to scholarships for students at public universities, which received $56.3 million in state funds last year.

The cuts could discourage students from attending private colleges, Washington University in St. Louis spokesman Fredric Volkmann said. Volkmann said the cuts could make students attend school out-of-state if they did not want to attend a public university.

"At a time when Missouri lags significantly behind other states in the number of residents who are college graduates, the governor's plan to end student aid to a large portion of Missouri residents is misguided and potentially devastating to Missouri families and students," Volkmann said.

In the same speech, Nixon also proposed combining the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with the Department of Higher Education to improve efficiency and communication between the departments.

"We need to have one Department of Education that prepares students from the day they walk into preschool to the day they walk across the stage with their college diplomas," Nixon said.

The Department of Higher Education refused to comment on that proposal until it receives more information from the governor's office, but Jim Morris, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the departments have a good working relationship and would benefit from the combination.

"We think it could be more efficient, and there could be cost savings to the state by having a single agency," Morris said. "I'm sure there would be challenges, but we could overcome them."

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