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Senators Offer Support for Nomination Of New Education Secretary

Senators Offer Support for Nomination Of New Education SecretaryMargaret Spellings cites more year-round Pell Grants, expansion
of distance-learning options, as higher education policy themes
By Charles Dervarics

President Bush’s choice for education secretary sailed through a confirmation hearing in early January, but concerns about possible Pell Grant reductions and other budget cuts may make the honeymoon a relatively short one in 2005.

Margaret Spellings, chosen to replace Dr. Roderick Paige as secretary, earned praise from Republicans and Democrats at her confirmation hearing Jan. 6. After the panel unanimously approved her nomination, the full Senate appeared ready to confirm the nomination this month.

“I hope it’s not a kiss of death to the right wing, but I welcome the opportunity to work with Margaret Spellings,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel.

Kennedy cited his work with Spellings while she was a chief domestic policy aide at the White House, particularly her work on the No Child Left Behind Act. Kennedy described the nominee as a “hard-working, committed leader” and an “inspired choice” for secretary.

While much of the discussion focused on K-12 issues, Spellings cited several themes for higher education policy: more help for nontraditional students; expansion of distance-learning options, with appropriate financial aid; and year-round Pell Grants for students with a strong commitment to education. She also reiterated support for Bush’s call to expand support to community colleges for more dual enrollment programs and other improvements.

With the Higher Education Act (HEA) up for renewal this year, along with job training and career education legislation, “We have a great opportunity to meet the needs of older students,” she said.

Pressed for specifics about a forthcoming HEA renewal bill from the administration, Spellings did not offer details or a timeline for this proposal. But she said the White House 2006 budget proposal, expected in February, will set “key parameters” for the debate.

Higher education associations also overwhelmingly endorsed Spellings’ nomination. In a letter to the Senate, the American Council on Education (ACE) expressed strong support, citing her White House work and her past service in Texas to promote education improvement. Spellings was an education lobbyist and later was part of then-Gov. George W. Bush’s education team.

Spellings “is a willing listener who seeks to find common ground and build consensus,” said ACE President David Ward.

On K-12 issues at her confirmation hearing, Spellings cited progress made nationwide to implement NCLB, particularly the need to address issues facing African American and Latino youth. The achievement gap between minorities and Whites “is beginning to close,” she said. Under NCLB, she noted, the nation has a much more detailed picture of the achievement and challenges facing low-income youth and students of color.

She said another administration theme this year is high school reform. Of 100 ninth-graders, she said, only 67 graduate from high school on time and just 26 go to college through their sophomore year, the minimum education level required for today’s higher-paying jobs.

But Kennedy and others said more funds — not just more standards and tests — are vital to education improvement. “We simply cannot reform our public schools and expand access to higher education on a tin-cup budget,” he said.

This budget issue is perhaps most evident now in partisan sniping about potential cuts in Pell Grant eligibility and funding. While largely ignored during the confirmation hearing, the issue is casting a shadow over the budget and HEA renewal process.

At issue is the Education Department’s decision to change tax tables used in calculating financial aid and Pell Grant eligibility. Announced just before Christmas, the move would alter the treatment of state and local taxes in calculating the expected family contribution, or amount a family can pay for college. As a result, some families may end up paying more for college with less financial aid.

“Instead of cutting aid to students, we should be finding ways to increase assistance so that more of our nation’s young people can achieve the dream of a college education,” said Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., who plans to introduce a bill this month to prevent the changes from harming students.

Corzine and other critics say the administration wants to save about $300 million a year in Pell Grants, which is running a huge shortfall spurred by heavy student demand. They said 1.3 million students will have their grants reduced by $100 to $300, while 89,000 will lose their grants entirely.

Republicans dispute the claim, noting that the government has continued to use old tax tables from the late 1980s. A new analysis from GOP staff on the House of Representatives’ education panel says the changes may increase, not reduce, the number of Pell Grant recipients.

“Continuing to use this outdated information could mean shortchanging eligible students and deepening the Pell Grant budget shortfall,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He described the changes as an essential step if lawmakers want to increase the maximum Pell Grant in the future.

Congress in 2003 prevented the Education Department from amending the tax tables through language in the annual education spending bill. But that language was missing from the current year’s budget, paving the way for the change.

Corzine maintains that Higher Education Act renewal is the appropriate time to address the eligibility issue. Both the House and Senate will hold hearings on HEA soon.

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