The Gore/Bush Records on Higher Education
When Texas Gov. George W. Bush made a campaign stop at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., in early February, the Republican provoked one of the first crises of the campaign season. The content of this crisis was not higher education policy, but the role of Christian conservative voters in the South. Yet, polling data indicates that voters of all stripes consider education to be the primary issue of the 2000 campaign because of its link to a high-tech, upwardly mobile future for parents and their children. So, the position of the two major presidential candidates on this issue is crucial to assess as it applies to the Black community.
GEORGE W. BUSH
The impression that Bush made during most of the primary season was that he was not prepared to make higher education much of a priority in his campaign. Indeed, his issue agenda rarely went beyond proposing a change in the tax-free status of education saving accounts to include both public and private institutions. Otherwise he has had a decidedly mixed record — even in his own state of Texas, where he most often followed the initiatives of his Democratic-controlled legislature.
In Texas, the highest profile issue during his tenure has been the Hopwood decision, in which a Federal district court invalidated affirmative action in university admissions. This was followed by the state attorney general’s decision to void racially oriented college scholarship programs. Bush’s reaction to these events was slow. To fill the gap in college access for students of color, he basically supported an initiative that developed legislation using a 10 Percent Plan. This plan provided automatic admission to all state public institutions of higher education for the top 10 percent of students in each high school. Because of Bush’s failure to immediately pledge any new scholarship aid, Black State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, proposed and won a $100 million appropriation for state scholarship grants for 20,000 students.
One of the thorniest issues for Bush was the challenge to eliminate the traditional system of racial segregation in higher education in Texas lodged by the federal authorities. Bush’s response to this problem was slow as well, but he eventually signed an agreement in the spring of this election year to improve funding for the two historically Black universities — Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M.
A corollary to this problem stemmed from two lawsuits by faculty at Texas Southern University alleging the state was perpetuating racial discrimination in higher education. The first suit charged that by competitive funding of White institutions in Houston, the state enabled White students to avoid attending Texas Southern University. The second suit held that the award of nearly $1 billion in tobacco funds solely to a White medical school violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These cases have since been resolved.
Republicans sought to improve the party’s image with Black voters when leaders such as Congressman J.C. Watts, R-Okla., held a well-publicized meeting with Black college presidents before the Republican National Convention. Afterward, Gov. Bush, speaking at Dillard University in New Orleans, proposed a 77 percent increase in federal aid to all 104 HBCUs from the current level of $180 million to $320 million over five years.
Early in the campaign, Vice President Al Gore pointed often to the Clinton/Gore administration’s substantial increases in Pell Grants, forgiveness of HBCUs for accounting problems, strong support for affirmative action in higher education and other initiatives affecting Blacks. But the public wanted to know where Gore stood on education apart from his role in the Clinton administration’s accomplishments. During the campaign he has initiated proposals to lift the financial burden for low- and middle-income families, thereby improving their ability to afford a college education for their children.
Gore also proposed substantial increases in funding for programs such as Pell Grants, HOPE Scholarships, GEAR UP, TRIO and others that enabled students to prepare for and attend college. He also proposed a tax credit for lifelong learning, especially job training, as well as a college tuition deduction up to $10,000 or a $2,800 tax credit. Bush, however, says he would expand education savings accounts, making it possible for parents to contribute up to $5,000 per year per child tax free.
A novel proposal would increase the number of teachers in inner- city schools further reducing the cost of a college education. This would be achieved by providing a tuition reimbursement to graduates who choose to teach in under-performing high schools in the inner city or in summer enrichment programs. Gore also says he would reduce the cost of financing college education for parents by making state tuition saving programs exempt from taxation.
BALANCING THE EQUATION
Overall, it appears that George Bush has proposed spending more funds on both students and institutions of Black higher education while Gore has initiated proposals that will stay the course, provide Blacks with stronger access to all institutions and substantially decrease the financial burden of a college education. Despite the fact that Bush has proposed more specific — and generous — increases in aid, both to higher education in general and to HBCUs in particular, it is questionable whether a Republican-controlled Congress would approve the magnitude of these proposals.
Bush also has accumulated, from Bob Jones onward, many more issues that are at odds with mainstream attitudes in the Black community. One example in this regard is the 10 Percent Plan. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report indicating that affirmative action in Texas contributed to school integration because students were selected from among a broad pool, whereas the new plan exploited the segregation already existing at the high school level by reinforcing it through the college selection process. The implication of this plan is profound. It poses the question of whether high schools in the state must be kept all Black or all Hispanic in order for the 10 Percent Plan to work. There is also a concern that Black and Hispanic students might lose college entrances if these schools are integrated.
Moreover, although it appeared that some Black students would be guaranteed admissions through the 10 Percent Plan, the lack of a direct impact on the distribution of scholarships means that funding for students is now without fairness guidelines. One good thing about the Texas 10 Percent Plan is that students of color have access to flagship institutions, whereas students in Florida and California have been relegated to second-tier level institutions since the changes.
So the balance seems to be with Al Gore and, if the Democrats win, with the team of African Americans who will inherit control of the Congress — many of whom are products of HBCUs. Gore’s proven record as part of the Clinton administration on access and funding issues, along with his proposals as a presidential candidate to continue this record make him an overall better choice in the 2000 campaign for this writer.
— Dr. Ronald Walters is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland-College Park.
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