Welfare, Pell Grant Issues Spark Partisan Battles
Bush administration turning ‘blind eye’ to college affordability, critics say
By Charles Dervarics
With fall congressional elections less than six months away, partisan bickering is back in full force on Capitol Hill on issues ranging from Pell Grants to education for welfare recipients.
“The Bush administration has turned a blind eye to college affordability,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said as Democrats unveiled a new study showing how the Bush education budget would shortchange needy students and prevent some from attending college.
Miller, senior Democrat on the House education committee, says the Bush administration’s proposed freeze in the maximum Pell Grant means the government would serve fewer students after factoring in the effects of inflation. About 375,000 fewer students would receive financial aid because of the freeze, he says.
The Bush administration is proposing to maintain the maximum Pell Grant at $4,000. But the Congressional Budget Office says the maximum grant would have to increase by at least $200 for the program to keep pace with rising college costs.
“As a result of state budget cuts, students are facing the largest tuition hikes in recent history,” says Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. “At the same time, the Bush administration has shortchanged Pell Grants and other programs to help low and middle-income students afford college.”
In the study, “Slamming Shut the Doors to College,” congressional Democrats assert that states are slashing higher education budgets by about $5.5 billion because of the economic downturn. Yet the Bush budget does little to support those students, they say.
Bush administration officials reacted sharply to the criticism. “It’s deeply troubling to me that after a year of strong bipartisan support for education — including the largest increases ever for our K-12 schools and our colleges and universities — some are resorting to petty politics to mislead the American people about this administration’s support for our college students and their families,” says Education Secretary Dr. Roderick Paige.
The maximum Pell Grant has increased by 21 percent during the past two years as a result of bipartisan cooperation, he says. Yet he also faulted Congress for raising Pell Grant funding without figuring out how to pay for the increases. There is a $1.3 billion shortfall in the program because of heavy student demand. The White House has proposed covering the shortfall through cuts in pork-barrel projects or changes in student loan interest rate calculations, two plans that have gone nowhere in Congress.
“In other words, Congress wrote a check for $11.6 billion (for Pell) but deposited only $10.3 billion to cover it,” Paige says. Both parties must figure out a way to pay for the shortfall in 2002.
Democrats and Republicans also are clashing on welfare reform, because Congress is required this year to do its first update of the 1996 law that made sweeping changes in the welfare system.
Among the most contentious issues is the role education should play in the work plans of welfare recipients. Under current law, only a small percentage of welfare recipients can claim education as an allowable work activity. And work requirements also would increase under a new Bush administration plan, with recipients expected to work 40 hours a week.
“Some will try to paint those who raise concerns about education, training, work-force protections and child care as soft on welfare reform. The American people know better than that,” Miller says.
Democrats would limit work activities at no more than 30 hours a week for families with young children. They also want to increase — from 1 year to 2 years — the length of time individuals can pursue education that is linked to a future credential such as a degree, certificate or GED.
But Republicans counter that their plan would allow adequate time for education. Of the new, stiffer 40-hour work requirement, welfare recipients could devote up to 16 hours to education once they finish 24 hours of work. Their new welfare reform bill would “empower families to lead self-sufficient lives,” says Rep. Howard ‘Buck’ McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House higher education subcommittee.
In a party-line vote, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the GOP welfare bill, which now goes to the House floor for consideration later this spring.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com