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Legislation Seeks to Broaden Access to HOPE Scholarship

Legislation Seeks to Broaden Access to HOPE Scholarship
By Charles Dervarics

A congressional coalition is seeking to link two of the most contentious issues in education today — unequal K-12 funding and affirmative action in higher education.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., who is leading the coalition, says unequal funding and affirmative action are directly related. Unequal school funding — particularly for low-income students of color — justifies the use of affirmative action in college admissions to promote diversity, Fattah says.

Many members of the Congressional Black Caucus and progressives in Congress support the new effort, which is being waged on two fronts — through a legal brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court and legislation to promote more equitable school financing. Fattah is rolling out a campaign seeking action on the legislation by the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 2004.

“We think there is a very clear nexus between what takes place in K-12 and what takes place in higher education,” Fattah told Black Issues recently. Yet even as the nation prepares for a possible rollback of affirmative action, “No one has raised the connection,” he says.

The centerpiece of the argument is that too many low-income, minority children attend inferior local schools with few resources and an insufficient tax base. If policy-makers are truly interested in color-blind college admissions, states must take steps to equalize funding between rich and poor districts.

Black Caucus members and other lawmakers outlined this view in a friend-of-the-court brief they filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is reviewing the University of Michigan policy on affirmative action in college admissions. “States have consistently failed to provide to poor children the education they provide for other children,” Fattah says.

Given the pervasive inequality in funding for local schools, a youngster of color educated in a low-income neighborhood “stands little chance of competing for a space in an academic institution such as the University of Michigan,” the brief states. Minority children also face “persistent, pernicious inequities” in K-12 education, something the federal government already recognizes by funding the multi-billion-dollar Title I program.

Moreover, lawmakers argue, even among poor schools, those that are majority-White get more funds than those that enroll children of color.

“Minority students will remain at a disadvantage so long as state legislatures support financing measures for education that fail to provide equal opportunities for all,” the legal brief states. Amid this reality, it is the “proper role” of colleges to “right these imbalances by taking students’ race into account in the admissions process.”

Sponsors of the legal brief say that it is not unrealistic to think that the court can consider K-12 issues when ruling on the Michigan policy, since the high court can act as it sees fit. “It’s a higher education case, but the court has discretion to do what it wants to do,” Fattah says. Sixty members of Congress signed on to the legal brief.

The second part of this effort — federal legislation — will be a yearlong effort which began last month and will culminate with the Brown anniversary next spring. Already, 44 states have dealt with legal challenges on funding for local schools. Moreover, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act gives a new major role to states to test children and promote accountability. “The Bush testing approach opens up the notion that states are accountable,” Fattah says.

The bill, called the Student Bill of Rights, would take federal education funds away from states that do not provide comparable resources to all children at the K-12 level.

States would be graded on seven core principles: curricula; trained teachers; books; class size; libraries; facilities, including computers; and guidance counselors. Those not found to support comparable resources among rich and poor districts would lose administrative funds, estimated at up to 4 percent of all federal education dollars.

The bill is H.R. 236, and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate. “The quality of a child’s education shouldn’t be determined by the digits of their zip code,” Dodd said in endorsing the plan.

To tie in with Brown‘s upcoming 50th anniversary, the two lawmakers are embarking on a “Countdown to Brown” campaign, in which they will seek a vote on the Student Bill of Rights before next spring.

For more information, contact Fattah’s office at (202) 225-4001 or Dodd’s office at (202) 224-2823.

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