This is the latest in an ongoing series examining the issues, records and platforms of West Virginia's candidates for governor. Today'sinstallment deals with higher education. In the grand scheme of politics, an eye-glazing topic like college financial aid usually fades amid shouts of "Abortion!" and "Jobs!" But when the candidates stand as close on issues as Gov. CecilUnderwood and challenger Rep. Bob Wise, college aid can - and has - emerged as arguably the most divisive issue in the campaign.Even more so, because Wise has dragged "gray" video poker machines into the fray. He wants to legalize the payouts, tax the earnings and use the money to buy college educations for West Virginia's smartest children. "That's the major source of revenue that I can see," Wise said. Two years ago, Underwood signed a law authorizing Lincoln County Sen. Lloyd Jackson's pet scholarship program, the PROMISE scholarship (Providing Real Opportunity for Maximizing In-state Student Excellence). He started appointing people to a PROMISE board of directors. Then Wise hitched his gubernatorial hopes to the PROMISE plan. Underwood now says he'd rather spend state money on need-based financial aid for poor people to go to college, not grade-based aid like PROMISE. "If he cares so much about needs-based, fine," Wise said. "Tax the gray machines ... I'd be happy to have some needs-based come out of that as well." Underwood did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this
tory. Wise's plan - otherwise known as Jackson's plan - would pay the entire tuition at any in-state college for every student who leaves high chool with a "B" average. Students would have to maintain at least a B average in college to keep their scholarships. The whole thing would cost an estimated $25 million a year. Mountain Party candidate Denise Giardina vehemently opposes the PROMISE cholarship. "I've been saying that ever since [Wise] has been talking about it," aid Giardina, a novelist who teaches literature part-time at West Virginia State College. "I think the grade thing is a really bad idea." High-school teachers would feel pressure to hand out "Bs" so they wouldn't mess up a kid's chance for a scholarship, Giardina said. And it might stop students from taking really difficult classes in high school. "I know kids well enough to know that some of them are going to dumb down on their schedule to get the 'B' average," she said. Giardina thinks using scholarships as an excuse to legalize video poker is "a horrible idea." "We should be banning gray machines," she said. "I think it's really a rapacious way for a government to make money." Libertarian candidate Bob Myers also opposes the PROMISE cholarship. "It would set up a social caste in our school system," Myers said. "It used to be that the smart kids went to college, and the dumb kids went to trade school. We've gotten away from that, thank heaven. I think it would be a social regression." - - - Wise wants to be clear on one point. He does not want to do away with West Virginia's need-based college aid. "I want to fully fund needs-based," Wise said. "Maybe there should be a mix. Cap the PROMISE scholarship at $15 million until you are able to cover all the needs-based." West Virginia's need-based program, the Higher Education Grant Program, has run short on money every year of its life. This year, 2,500 eligible tudents didn't get aid because the grant program ran out of money. Underwood has pledged huge funding increases for the grant program - $6 million in 1999 and $7.6 million in 2000. But they never came about, although funding has gone up $1 million to $2 million every year since Underwood became governor. The head policy analyst for the national College Board agrees with Underwood that need-based aid is the way to go. Too many tates are putting their money into merit-based scholarships, Larry Gladieux said. The problem is there's already a slew of private scholarships available for smart kids. So they're going to be able to go to college, no matter what. The kids who need the help, Gladieux said, are the ones with poorer, less educated parents who haven't been able to help them much with homework over the years, or haven't exposed them to educational opportunities, and can't help them pay for college. Giardina wants to put more money into the Higher Education Grant Program. Myers would abolish it, and instead issue vouchers that tudents could use at any college. - - - There's one big drama going on in West Virginia higher education that either Wise nor Underwood wants to call off: the fallout from Senate Bill 653, the brainchild of a handful of very powerful legislators that has ent colleges into a tizzy of fear and indignation. "I'm going to hold institutions, to the extent that I can through my appointments to governing boards, to the principles in 653," Wise said. "And at the end of the time, we'll have a community college system instituted." Wise agrees with the Legislature that to improve West Virginia's economy, the state should encourage more people to go to community college. A Colorado consultant hired by the Legislature reported that some of the state's community colleges aren't doing their jobs, and they should be taken away from the four-year colleges that spawned them. Four-year colleges don't like that idea, because community colleges generate a lot of money. The Legislature agreed to give the four-year colleges a year to prove that they can run things right. Wise wants to follow that plan. He doesn't want to let legislators use 653 as an excuse to build new community colleges in their district, as House Finance Chairman Harold Michael recently did in Hardy County. "I think anybody who's looking to build new bricks and mortar is going to be disappointed," Wise said. Myers said he would leave it up to a free market to determine whether the state needs more or better community colleges. Giardina said community colleges are more effective and efficient when they're attached to four-year colleges, so she'd just ignore the consultant's recommendation. "It's treated as a piece of pork for legislators to say, 'Let's build this in my district,'" she said. As for Michael's Eastern Community College, Giardina said she'd get the state out from under that before it wastes any more money. "It's a rip-off," she said. To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.