Senate rejects president's call

Senate rejects president's callAdvocates for minority-serving institutions and increased financial aid prevailed in one battle but lost another as Congress continues to send mixed signals on the prospect of more higher education funding next year.

The Senate secured a major victory with a 51-49 vote rejecting President Bush's call for cuts in early college awareness programs, such as TRIO, and the outright elimination of GEAR UP and career education funding. With six Republicans joining 45 Democrats, the Senate instead voted to provide an extra $5.4 billion for education programs.

While protecting GEAR UP, TRIO and the Carl D. Perkins Act, the Senate amendment also earmarks enough funds to raise the maximum Pell Grant to $4,500 next year, up $450 from the current level. Another provision would dramatically increase educational loan forgiveness for students who choose careers as math or science teachers.

The plan proposed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., still would need support from the House of Representatives. But advocates expressed hope that the Senate vote would create important momentum for the battles still ahead.

"It's a very important start," says Dr. Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, which represents TRIO programs. But he adds, "It's going to take a lot of bipartisan support to keep this plan alive."

President Bush has called for cuts in two TRIO programs--Upward Bound and Talent Search, citing poor evaluations. The administration would use savings from these programs and others to fund a new high-school intervention initiative.

More aid to high schools may have some merit, Mitchem says, but Congress should not fund it at the expense of TRIO programs with a successful 40-year track record. He told Black Issues one possible silver lining in this battle is that now more lawmakers recognize the importance of Upward Bound and Talent Search.

"It's clear there are a growing number of Republicans who value these programs," Mitchem says.

Kennedy's plan would pay for the extra education funding by cutting $10.8 billion in corporate tax loopholes.

Without the amendment, White House and congressional budget plans would cut at least $2.5 billion from education next year and $4 billion in 2007. "We are talking about very dramatic and significant cuts in education," Kennedy says. "We have increased funding in education, but it still is totally inadequate."

Along with the 45 Democrats, the six Republicans voting for approval were Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I.; Aden Specter, R-Pa.; and Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Kennedy says he believes the loan forgiveness program alone will bring 50,000 new science and math teachers into public schools.

But opponents say more federal funding is not the cure for the nation's education ills. "Money does not solve the problem of education," says Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "If it did, the city of Washington would have the finest schools and the best academic experience in the country instead of the worst." According to Gregg, the Kennedy plan follows the Democratic philosophy that "you just raise taxes and you spend more money and that solves the problem."

Gregg says the Bush administration has initiated several key priorities with limited funding, including the No Child Left Behind Act, special education and high-school improvement. The president's budget also calls for a $100 increase in the maximum Pell Grant, while gutting or eliminating smaller programs such as GEAR UP, TRIO, Perkins and several other student aid programs.

Yet Collins of Maine, one of the GOP members to vote with the Democrats, says a $450 increase in the maximum Pell Grant is "imminently reasonable and achievable," especially since the grant minimum has not increased in the past four years despite the escalating costs of college tuition.

The funding also is essential to help more young people move along the educational pipeline, Kennedy adds. Of every 100 ninth-graders, only 18 eventually graduate from college on time, and only 68 graduate from high school. Education investments are "an indication of our national priority," he says.

Oil the other side of Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives approved an even tighter budget with the potential for $216 billion in domestic spending cuts during the next five years. Before approving the plan, House members rejected a Congressional Black Caucus alternative with significant spending increases for historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and student financial aid. Overall, the caucus plan included:

* $50 million more for historic preservation at HBCUs;

* $500 million in additional HBCU funding;

* $500 million more for Hispanic-serving institutions;

* $400 million more for Head Start;

* $900 million in additional funding for TRIO, GEAR UP and other early college awareness programs; and continued funding for career education under the Carl D. Perkins Act.

"Its locus is to reduce disparities that exist in America's communities by investing in the priorities and challenges that Americans face today," says Rep. Bobby Scott.

But Republicans argue that, with $36 billion in new spending, the bill would demand major tax increases. "These tax increases are above and beyond, on top of enormous spending increases," says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.

The CBC members counter that the tax increases are only for those earning more than $200,000 a year; however, the full House turned back the caucus' plan by a 292 to 134 vote.

The House and Senate now must reconcile their competing budget plaits before appropriators can begin to set funding for individual programs next year. Yet Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, noted the long-term trend is not positive. "This is the first time since 1989 that an administration has submitted a budget that cuts [Department of Education] funding," she says. The CBC budget, she adds, "represents hope rather than despair."