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U.S. Sen. Barack Obama Joins Education Committee

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama Joins Education Committee
Appointment provides forum for possible presidential candidate to talk
about one of his chief priorities.
By Charles Dervarics

The Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate promises to bring student aid issues to the forefront and to give Blacks a stronger voice, especially now that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is set to join that chamber’s education panel.

By winning a narrow majority in the November midterm elections, Democrats earn more seats on all Senate panels, including the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. As a result, Obama will join the panel along with U.S. Sen.-Elect Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Democrats will also assign a third new seat to U.S. Sen.-Elect Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., an independent who plans to work closely with the Democrats.

U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., incoming chair of the Senate education panel, announced Obama’s appointment in a mid-November briefing in which he also unveiled plans to focus on Pell Grants and student loan reform.

“Today, students and families are pinching every penny to save for college, and it’s not enough,” Kennedy said. “With the House and Senate under new management, next year we will provide needed help to families struggling to put their children through college.”

Kennedy said Senate Democrats will push for at least four reforms, including cutting loan interest rates and capping loan repayments at no more than 15 percent of a student’s annual income.

“We will reform the student loan program so it works for students and not just the banks,” Kennedy said.

For Obama, the appointment to the education panel will provide a forum for the first-term senator and possible presidential candidate to talk about one of his chief priorities.

The first bill Obama introduced after joining the Senate was the plan to expand the maximum Pell Grant from $4,050 to $5,100. In proposing his Higher Education Opportunity through Pell Grant Expansion, or HOPE Act, Obama noted that Pell typically covers only 23 percent of college costs, down significantly from two decades ago.

From his new post, Obama may also find more support for his K-12 education reform plan to create “innovation districts,” or school districts that get special funds and technical assistance to experiment with new ideas. His plan would create 20 such districts, with a focus on teaching and achievement.

Obama said in a statement that he hopes to “focus on legislation that will help working families adjust to the ever-changing global economy.”

In joining the education committee, Obama, who will also join the Committee on Homeland Security, will serve alongside another frequently mentioned 2008 presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

The ascent of Obama, the Senate’s only African-American, may prove important to historically Black colleges and universities, which need a new Senate sponsor on legislation to improve the technology infrastructure at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.

For the past four years, the chief sponsor of the bill has been U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who lost a close election last month to former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, D-Va. Although Allen had some support in the Black community, he was dogged by controversy after he used the word “macaca” to describe a Webb operative. The comment set off a firestorm of criticism and left Allen open to charges of racial insensitivity that his campaign never fully recovered from.

Under Allen’s sponsorship, the Minority-Serving Institution Digital and Wireless Technology Opportunity Act has twice gained Senate approval. However, it has never cleared the House of Representatives, though prospects in that chamber may change with its shift from Republican to Democratic control.

The digital wireless bill would provide minority-serving colleges with $250 million annually to modernize their technology systems. Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges also would be eligible for these funds.

Democratic control of the Senate will give more visibility to other ideas as well. Kennedy has called for free college tuition for many low- and middle-income students who study science, math or engineering. The provision was part of the Right TRACK Act, which Kennedy plans to
re-propose in 2007.

“We must address the crisis in college affordability that affects every low- and middle-income family and that threatens our economic progress,” he said.

Kennedy, who won re-election in his home state in November, said he will work with Republicans, particularly U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who has chaired the education panel during the current Congress. “The gavel may change hands, but our partnership will not,” Kennedy said. 

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