COLUMBIA - Gov. Mel Carnahan, visiting the state's center of higher education, announced a three-pronged initiative Thursday aimed at lowering the cost of college.
In a speech before Columbia's Rotary Club, the Democrat proposed lowering interest rates on student loans, expanding the Pell grant program, and giving an estimated $3.5 billion in tax breaks for college expenses.
"Our children need all the opportunity that higher education holds, and our increasingly high-tech economy needs all the expertise of an educated workforce," Carnahan said.
In addition to the higher education proposal, Carnahan touted his primary education plan -- originally introduced Monday in St. Louis -- as a compromise in the partisan debate long-raging in Congress over the federal government's role in education.
Democrats have traditionally pushed to expand Washington's role. President Clinton's idea to earmark money to hire 100,000 new teachers represents that philosophy. Republicans have argued that local school boards should decide how to spend the funds.
Carnahan positioned his proposal, which would allocate $50 billion over 10 years from the projected federal surplus, as somewhere in the middle.
"My plan calls for a new national committment to our schools and our children, but at the same time, it supports continued local control for school districts," he said. "It strokes the middle ground, so we can move on."
His proposal also seeks to reduce classroom sizes, but it gives school districts several options for spending the money including: hiring new teachers, constructing new classrooms, or implementing a year-round schedule.
Repeated attempts to reach the campaign of Carnahan's opponent, John Ashcroft, were unsuccessful.
Carnahan's higher education proposal would seek to give more lower- and middle-income students access to the need-based Pell grant, which unlike a loan doesn't have to be repaid. Also under the plan, students or their parents could deduct up to $10,000 in tuition from taxable income, or they could get a 28 percent tax credit on the same amount.
The governor's speech was filled with praise for Columbia and its schools, calling them "superior." But he warned that the work is not done.
"We must extend those same benefits to every school district, whether rural or urban," he said.
Although states and local governments provide the vast majority of education funds, the issue is always a major talking point for national candidates.
Carnahan said the federal government currently provides only 7 percent of the nation's education money.