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No time for politics in student aid (San Francisco Chronicle) May 20, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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If politics makes strange bedfellows, then one of the oddest couples in Washington is having a spat. In most domestic disputes, it’s the children who are hurt. When Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., starts throwing educational rocks at his sometimes-friend President Bush, the victims are millions of college students in the United States, including more than half a million in California. As both a parent and a former university president, I know firsthand the great pain that students and families suffer over financing a college education. Consider the rhetoric and then consider the facts.

One of the stranger political marriages in Washington has brought together Kennedy and Bush. Who could have pictured Kennedy standing behind Bush as he signed a sweeping reform of the nation’s public school system? Yet, after almost a year of negotiations over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Kennedy and several of his liberal colleagues all held hands with the president on educational reform. Relations have cooled some since then.

Just three months after the president signed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Kennedy used the Democrats’ response to the president’s weekly radio address as an opportunity to assail Bush for failing to fund his own program. For the record, President Bush’s fiscal year 2003 budget requests $56.5 billion for education, a 34 percent increase over the amount budgeted in the president’s first year in office. These are the largest educational budgets in U.S. history, actually doubling what the U.S. Department of Education received only a few years ago in 1996. The Democrats’ constant plea in education — “show me the money” — rings hollow in light of these numbers.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Kennedy and his cohorts called a press conference to lob a few more grenades at the president, this time over funding for college student financial aid programs. Once again, however, the numbers do not support Kennedy’s attacks. Yes there is a $1.3 billion shortfall in the important Pell grant budget for college student loans, but this is because Kennedy and his colleagues failed to fund it. Congress mandated that Pell grants be authorized up to a maximum of $4,000, but appropriated only $1.3 billion — less than needed to fund it. Kennedy and Co. are using the president’s tax cut as a distraction, hoping no one will notice that they didn’t fund the program so many Americans count on to get through college.

The impact on Californians alone is enormous. Many California college students — mostly in University of California, California State University and community colleges, but also in independent colleges — receive federal financial aid. The 2003 budget has $1.34 billion for California students, or $131 million more than when President Bush took office. With the state budget facing potential reductions in education, this is no time to be playing politics with federal student aid.

There is yet one more political irony here. Like the Cal grant and other state college scholarship programs, the Pell grant is essentially a kind of voucher. Students may take the portable awards to any accredited college, whether it is state, private or even religious. Many of us in higher education have wondered why this system, which works so well and delivers such fine results, should not be tried in K-12 education where there are so many problems. The irony is that Kennedy, who vehemently opposes vouchers in K-12 education, is not chastising President Bush for not spending more on them in higher education.

With a recent study showing that an ever-larger percentage of family income must go to college expenses, this is no time to be playing politics with Pell grants. I agree with the senator when he said in his radio address, “Politics should stop at the schoolhouse door.” Maybe if Kennedy and Co. weren’t so busy stirring up partisan press frenzies, they could solve not only the Pell grant problem, but a host of other national challenges as well.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-7.

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