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Reauthorization: Substance or Smokescreen?

Reauthorization: Substance or Smokescreen?
By Julianne Malveaux

This summer, the national press corps has been focused on the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts, Karl Rove’s role in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame and the mutually exclusive “wars” on terrorism and Iraq. But for stakeholders in higher education, the big news has been the progress that the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has made in reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. The act must be reauthorized by 2006, and the Senate has yet to begin drafting legislation. But the House bill reveals the direction that the Republican Congress and Senate are going in dealing with higher education in the future.

Bush budget proposals for 2006 included widespread cuts in education programs, including the pre-college TRIO programs (most notably Upward Bound, Talent Search and GEAR UP), and cuts in Perkins loans and vocational education. A glance at the press releases generated from the committee suggests a group that has approached higher education reauthorization in a measured and reasoned manner, offering new opportunities for students, better loan rates, increased oversight and accountability and increased program competition. But this very measured language cannot obscure the fact that the Republican goal is to shrink the amount that is spent on higher education.

In some ways the language of the higher education reauthorization looks like “school choice lite.” The Republicans want more testing to ensure, for example, that TRIO programs are effective. The accusation is that TRIO programs “may not be accountable enough to students and taxpayers,” and that testing will somehow increase accountability. But part of the purpose of TRIO programs is college exposure, expanding the options and choices of those low-income students who had not considered college before. What kind of test will measure the new horizons that some students will experience?

Under the guise of improving transparency, the new higher education reauthorization also imposes a set of unfunded mandates on higher education, including a requirement to collect and publish transfer data. Changes in definition, which seem to consolidate, also seem to reduce the amount of money available to some educational programs, as well as community colleges.

Some say this bill is the best compromise that Democrats can get, given the Republican dominance of Congress and the administration’s determination to slash social spending. Still, higher education stakeholders have a responsibility to continue to be vocal about the flaws in the legislation. With the bottom 60 percent of the work force receiving wage increases that barely match the pace of inflation, a college education is more important than ever. Yet, while our global economic competitors are investing exponentially more in education (especially science and technology education) than we are, our nation is content to let our higher education system erode in the name of partisanship.

To be sure, some aspects of the Republican bill are improvements, especially where students and parents are getting more information on loan terms, and more choices on loan interest rates. Provisions that eliminate large government subsidies for banks and others that provide student loans also make sense. But the House Committee on Education and the Workforce can’t hide behind these laudable provisions while they slash their way through the existing higher education budget. The long-term consequences of higher education cuts need to be weighed when the Senate drafts its legislation.

The situation is all the more troubling because states, too, face pressure to cut higher education budgets. Too many state universities have had to increase tuitions to respond to state financing pressures that partly come from a change in the way the federal government provides funding to the states. Unfunded mandates, always troubling, have increased considerably since Sept. 11, and many states are faced with the dilemma of funding Medicare, K-12, or higher education. Federal and state budget cuts have combined to undermine a system that desperately needs to ramp up to face the global competition.

Of course, higher education can’t really ramp up unless K-12 education is also improved. And state governors’ resistance to the cost implications of No Child Left Behind suggests a major challenge in improving K-12 education, especially in inner cities. For years, scholars have pointed out the inequalities that result from an education system that is funded by property taxes. And for years legislators and the public have been reluctant to consider reform. The testing imposed by No Child Left Behind is no substitute for substantive reforms in K-12 education.

Does the higher education authorization prepare us to compete more effectively in the global arena? Does the legislation improve access for low and moderate-income students? These questions will be answered when Congress comes back from its August recess. Meanwhile, stakeholders should let their Congressional representatives know that this is not the time to reduce our national commitment to higher education. We need a reauthorization with substance, not one that is a smokescreen for a budget cutting, “school choice lite” Republican agenda.

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