Bush Offers Glimpse of a Second-Term Education Agenda
By Charles Dervarics
President Bush in early September outlined a second-term education agenda that includes more Pell Grant support for low-income students, new funds for community colleges and a collection of other proposals designed to spur K-12 reform and college access.
“In this time of change, most new jobs are filled by people with at least two years of college, yet only about one in four students gets there,” Bush said in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for a second term. The president’s new agenda will begin in high school, with more rigorous exams for students, and continue with additional postsecondary funding.
The new Pell funding would come through year-round grants for low-income students who either want to continue studies in the summer or adopt other flexible approaches that help them graduate. Under current law, students receive only one Pell Grant during an academic year, leaving many unable to afford summer programs. Through year-round grants, students could complete a four-year degree in three years, the Education Department says.
The idea of a year-round Pell Grant has gained visibility in recent months, particularly through a House of Representatives hearing that featured representatives from historically Black colleges. The concept would help low-income students stay in school and allow colleges to expand enrollment without building new facilities, said Dr. Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund. Motivated students could complete their bachelor’s degrees in three years, he said, while students in remedial courses could begin college with a smaller load and add more courses during summer sessions later.
“Guaranteed year-round grant aid allows students to really commit to their studies without working so many hours and without assuming an overwhelming loan debt burden,” Lomax told the panel this summer.
For community colleges, the president is proposing $125 million for “Community College Access Grants” that would promote cooperation between two-year institutions and other levels of education. Funds could support dual enrollment programs, through which high school students can earn college credit. States also could create incentives that make it easier for students to transfer community college credits to a four-year institution.
“Current state funding rules do not encourage dual-enrollment programs because high schools and community colleges each receive funds on a per-student basis,” the administration said in a statement describing the plan.
The goals of these initiatives are to “double the number of people served by our principal job-training program and increase funding for community colleges,” Bush said. “I know that with the right skills, American workers can compete with anyone, anywhere in the world.”
This new plan is in addition to a $250 million initiative targeted at community colleges in the president’s 2005 budget. That proposal would fund job-training grants for approximately 10,000 additional workers. Despite much fanfare during its release, that proposal has yet to gain approval from Congress.
Another new administration priority is lifelong learning, which it would support through loans to pay for short-term technical training. Individuals could receive these loans for training that leads to an industry-recognized credential certificate. The proposal targets older workers as well as the unemployed and underemployed. Elsewhere in higher education, the president has offered these new proposals:
• The government should expand “competency-based programs” that award degrees or certificates to individuals that have the needed skills and pass an • A new policy would encourage colleges to allow enrollment whenever students are ready to attend classes rather than limit access only to the beginning of a semester.
• The administration should support more online education by eliminating student aid restrictions on distance education. To date, the U.S. Department of Education has set strict limits on institutions, requiring them to offer a certain percentage of courses on a traditional campus.
• The government should drop the so-called “90-10 rule” requiring colleges and trade schools to obtain at least 10 percent of their funds from non-federal sources. The requirement hurts institutions serving low-income students, the administration says.
Despite these new postsecondary proposals, Bush’s new plans for K-12 education are garnering the most attention so far. The president wants to add more tests to the assessments already required under the No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial 2002 education reform law.
Current law requires testing in core academic subjects from third to eighth grades. The president’s plan would add tests in ninth, tenth and eleventh grades to this system, as well as an assessment to determine whether they have the skills to earn a high school diploma.
Teacher unions already are criticizing the idea. “We should be talking about ways to create smaller class sizes, hire and retain high-quality teachers in the classroom and invest in up-to-date resources for all students — not pile on yet another high-stakes test,” said Reginald Weaver, president of the National Education Association.
Many lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — want to fix “critical flaws” in this legislation, Weaver said. Lawmakers should focus first on improving the law before adding more changes, he added.
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