LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – Some illegal immigrants would be able to pay in-state tuition rates at Arkansas colleges and universities under a proposal a state lawmaker introduced Monday that aims to provide more education opportunities for students who entered the country as children.
Sen. Joyce Elliott's proposal would grant in-state tuition rates to anyone who has attended an Arkansas high school for at least three years and has an Arkansas high school diploma or general education diploma in the state. Supporters say it would more fairly treat students who came to the U.S. illegally as children and who currently have to pay higher out-of-state rates despite having grown up and gone to school here.
"We're giving them an Arkansas diploma from an Arkansas high school, but then to say they have to pay out of state tuition doesn't make sense," said Republican Sen. Johnny Key, who co-sponsored the bill.
Key, R-Mountain Home, chairs the Senate Education Committee and is considering running for governor next year.
Out-of-state tuition rates in Arkansas are about twice the in-state rates. In fall 2012, about 12.5 percent of the 156,252 students who were enrolled in public colleges and universities paid out-of-state tuition, said Arkansas Department of Higher Education spokeswoman Brandi Hinkle.
Still, Elliott last week downplayed the immigration angle of the measure, which will likely face challenges in the newly Republican-controlled Legislature.
"This is an education bill," Elliott, D-Little Rock, told The Associated Press on Friday. "It is not an immigration bill."
She did not immediately return a phone call Monday.
Her measure comes as some attitudes appear to be shifting on immigration. A bipartisan group of senators in Washington is working to craft a sweeping immigration bill. And a decade after a similar in-state tuition measure was introduced in Colorado, lawmakers there recently approved legislation expected to be signed into law this month.
Elliott has introduced other in-state tuition measures twice before but to no avail. In 2005, a similar bill failed even though it had the backing of Republican and then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. Elliott pushed forward with a similar proposal again in 2009, but by then, she lacked the support of Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who had said the measure could violate federal law.
Beebe said Monday that he hadn't looked at the latest proposal from Elliott. However, he said if it was similar to past proposals, "you've got a conflict with federal law."
House Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Westerman said he hasn't had a chance to review Elliott's bill, but he said in-state tuition is for in-state residents.
"If they can't meet residency requirements, I don't think we should be using state funds for them," said Westerman, R-Hot Springs.
Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report.
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