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Advocates Stunned By Proposed Pell Grant Freeze

An increase in the maximum Pell Grant next year is no sure thing yet under the Democratic Congress, especially if a new Senate bill gains approval.

With most advocates expecting Congress to raise the top award for needy students in 2008, a Senate panel added a dose of reality late Tuesday by proposing to freeze the maximum grant at $4,310 next year.

That amount is $390 below the level recommended recently by the House of Representatives. President Bush also proposed a top grant of $4,600 for the neediest students earlier this year.

The recommendation appeared to catch some advocates by surprise, particularly since both chambers are simultaneously working on a Higher Education Act renewal bill with moderate to large Pell increases over the next five years. But HEA provides only a funding target for Pell and other programs; lawmakers must provide the actual dollars each year in the annual education spending bill.

One advocate said the freeze likely was the result of belt-tightening in the Senate, which may have had less leeway than the House in writing its 2008 education spending bill. Given Pell’s strong support on Capitol Hill, senators also may have let the House take the lead on the issue while focusing its limited resources on other programs.

The House and Senate typically approve separate education spending bills, after which lawmakers from both chambers convene for a final negotiation, usually held in the fall.

Instead of large higher education increases, the bill from the Senate education appropriations subcommittee provided solid increases for several K-12 programs. The Title I program for low-income schools would receive an increase of more than $1 billion, while education for disabled children would get an additional $450 million.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the panel’s chair, said the bill strikes a balance by meeting many different needs.

“We have invested in our youngest learners and students with disabilities, and expanded access to a college education which will strengthen our economy and uphold the promise of the American dream,” he said.

But not all organizations in the K-12 arena were happy. After enduring freezes or small cuts under GOP control of Congress, an organization promoting after-school assistance services was expecting a different theme under Democratic control. Instead, the Senate bill has only a 2 percent increase for the $981 million program.

The small increase is “a disappointment,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance.

“If it stands, this funding level will leave millions of children and families without the quality after-school programs they urgently need,” she said.

Elsewhere, the Senate bill would provide increases for key college access programs, but at a level below the recent House recommendations. It would earmark $30 million more for TRIO college access programs, for total funding of $858 million next year. The House has proposed a $40 million increase.

Likewise, the Senate included an extra $10 million for GEAR UP, for a total of $313 million in 2008. The House has proposed a $20 million increase.

The Senate’s spending bill comes as lawmakers there prepare for a public session on HEA scheduled Wednesday. Senate Democratic leaders this week unveiled a plan to renew the law, following similar action by the House last week.

The Senate’s HEA bill has a long-term target of $6,300 for Pell by 2011. Similar to the House proposal, the Senate also would create a new program of aid to predominantly Black institutions, or colleges not recognized as historically Black institutions that nonetheless enroll a large number of African Americans. Under the Senate bill, these PBIs would receive individual grants of at least $250,000.

The HEA renewal bill is on a separate track from the 2008 education spending legislation.

–Charles Dervarics


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