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Senate-Approved Plan May Lead

Senate-Approved Plan May Lead
To Increases in Education Budget

By Charles Dervarics

Offering some hope to an increasingly gloomy budget picture, the Senate in late March voted to add $7 billion to education and other domestic programs next year. The move could lead to a long-sought Pell Grant increase.

Under the plan, senators would borrow the $7 billion from future appropriations, but sponsors say the move is justified given the long-term funding freezes that have hit many of the targeted programs. The bipartisan plan was approved by a 73-27 vote.

“The passage of this amendment has sent the president a powerful message that these misguided priorities will no longer be tolerated by the American people or by Congress,” says plan co-sponsor Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. He added that while the plan would only undo cuts made during the past two years, it does represent an effort to shift the debate more toward domestic priorities.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., says the Senate should use the money to boost Pell Grants, which have not seen an increase in four years.
“Our students are graduating with so much debt, it is like their first mortgage,” she says. Twenty years ago, Pell covered 80 percent of the average cost at a four-year public college. The figure today is considerably less.

Lawmakers also need to expand tuition tax breaks for middle-class families “who aren’t eligible for Pell Grants but still can’t afford college,” she says.

Without the new $7 billion, education and other programs will face significant cutbacks, says Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a sponsor of the initiative.

“This account has been decimated since fiscal year 2005,” he says. “We have gone beyond the fat, beyond the muscle, beyond the bone and into the marrow.”

“The education cuts proposed by Congress and the president went straight to the bone, and this amendment would help lessen some of that pain,” adds Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association. Weaver called it “a positive sign” that Republicans and Democrats joined together in the effort.

“Even though we’re still facing the biggest education cuts in history, bipartisan lawmakers may come to the aid of students, parents and public schools,” he says.

The Senate effort comes just weeks after Congress voted to trim student loan spending by $12.7 billion (See Diverse, Feb. 23). The 2007 budget proposed by President Bush in February held the line on most large programs and called for the elimination of 42 small to
mid-size education programs, including Perkins Loans, career and technical education funding and literacy efforts.

Meanwhile, other education groups are fighting their own battles to gain visibility and support for specific higher education initiatives. For example, the White House has singled out the federal TRIO programs for $456 million in cuts, or more than half its budget.

As part of the budget reduction plan, the administration would terminate TRIO’s Upward Bound and Talent Search programs.

Yet advocates are mounting an effort not only to restore the cuts but also to gain a $100 million increase from Congress for next year. So far, 227 members of the House — more than half of the lawmakers — have signed on to the increase, says the Council for Opportunity in Education, which represents TRIO programs.

Rep. Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., a Congressional Black Caucus member, and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., sent letters to colleagues urging support for the plan. Talent Search and Upward Bound “are vital to ensuring that every student has a chance to receive a meaningful education,” the joint letter read.

The Student Aid Alliance, an umbrella group that represents higher education organizations, also has identified its budget priorities for lawmakers. In addition to a Pell Grant increase, the alliance is seeking major increases for supplemental education grants, college work/study, graduate education and GEAR UP programs that help prepare at-risk youth for college.

“In a $2.7 trillion federal budget,” the group says, “there is nothing unrealistic about asking for increased student aid.”

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