No one could ever accuse Congressman Chaka Fattah of being timid about taking risks.
This charismatic and affable forty-year-old Philadelphia native has built a career on beating the political odds.
Earlier this year, Fattah introduced legislation entitled the “21st
Century Scholars Act of 1997.” The legislation, designated H.R. 777,
would target kids in areas of 75 percent poverty or greater. The bill
would require the federal government to notify sixth graders from
designated areas that they are guaranteed four years of the maximum
Pell grant award for their postsecondary education. The goal of the
program is to motivate low-income students to complete their education
since participants can only take advantage of Pell grants if they
graduate from high school.
“Right now, it’s important to help position these students, and get
them well prepared so they can go on to college and other postsecondary
institutions,” says Fattah, a former Pell Grant recipient.
The 21st Century Scholars Program is modeled after private ventures,
such as the “I Have a Dream” program created by millionaire Eugene
Lang. In 1981, Lang promised full college tuition to a class of sixth
graders at his old elementary school in East Harlem. Ninety percent of
the class earned high school diplomas – compared to a 25 percent
projection that would have gone to college without a tuition guarantee.
Sixty percent of the East Harlem class went on to college.
Fattah says there are a number of similar programs at work in his
Philadelphia district. He believes the track record of these private
programs has demonstrated they can work at the federal level.
“We observe that students who receive advance notification that
their college will be paid for make different decisions about their
lives, and are far more likely to graduate from high school and go on
to college,” Fattah says.
The Congressman notes that students from low-income families rely
upon federal grants more than their higher income counterparts. Federal
grants fund an average of 25 percent of postsecondary tuition for
low-income students compared to 2 percent for middle income students
and just 0.2 percent of high-income students, he says.
Another important component of the proposal is that students who
have been notified of their Pell grant eligibility would become
eligible to enroll in federal TRIO programs. Critics of the proposal,
however, say that TRIO programs serve only 10 percent of those who are
currently eligible and they would have to be greatly expanded to
accommodate students in the 21st Century Scholars Program.
Gaining Congressional Support
Over the past several months, the Scholars proposal has attracted
bipartisan support in the Congress. At least ten congressional
Republicans are supporting H.R. 777 as co-sponsors of the legislation.
U.S. Representative Major Owens (D-N.Y.) says Fattah’s bill is
generating support atypical for Democratic initiatives.
“He’s gotten the attention of Republicans with his proposal,” Owens says.
Fattah is seeking to have his bill enacted as an amendment to the
Higher Education Act (HEA), which is being reauthorized this fall. If
the bill is not incorporated as an amendment to the HEA, Fattah says he
is optimistic that it will pass the Congress as a stand-alone bill. By
late September, more than one hundred representatives had signed on as
co-sponsors of the bill, according to Fattah’s Washington office.
National higher education organizations have expressed their support
for the bill as well. Erica Adelsheimer, legislative director of the
United States Student Association, says she thinks the program would
“be effective in convincing students that getting a college education
“One of our complaints with the Department of Education is that it
does not make it easy to get information on student financial aid,
especially for families that most need it,” Adelsheimer adds.
Larry Gladieux, director of policy research for the College Board,
praised the program proposal as “a very worthy objective of federal
He adds, however: “It’s not a totally new policy idea. Similar ideas have been floated in the past.”
Previous presidential administrations have considered the notion but
shied away from implementing it because it was thought the Office of
Management and Budget (OMB) would resist the idea of making Pell grant
commitments on a five- or six-year basis, according to Gladieux, who
fears the same objections could sink the Fattah proposal. He adds that
other policy analysts have expressed concern that even if implemented,
the program may not get the necessary mentoring and outreach component
it needs to be effective.
Fattah contends “there is no downside” to the program. A spokeswoman
in Fattah’s Washington office said Clinton Administration officials
were considering the option of including the 21st Century Scholars
Program proposal in the President’s draft version of the Higher
Education Act as of late September.
New Political Energy
Observers say that Fattah brings an impressive level of energy and
innovation to higher education issues. In addition to his record as an
elected official, Fattah is credited with founding and organizing the
annual Graduate Opportunities Conference in Philadelphia – an event
that provides information, scholarships and encouragement to minority
students aspiring to attend graduate school.
In the early 1980s, he won a seat in the Pennsylvania House of
Representatives after challenging an incumbent who was backed by
Philadelphia’s Democratic Party. Several years later, Fattah won a seat
in the Pennsylvania State Senate after challenging another incumbent,
again defeating the establishment.
Then, in 1994, Fattah defied the local Democratic party a third time
by beating incumbent Lucien Blackwell in a primary. His subsequent
landslide victory in the general election made him one of thirteen
Democrats among eighty-six new members who went to Washington to serve
in the first Republican-dominated Congress in forty years.
In Congress, Fattah serves on the House Education and the Workforce
Committee, and on the House Committee on Government Reform and
Oversight. He also serves as a whip for the Congressional Black Caucus.
Hailed by Time magazine as one of America’s “most promising leaders,”
Pennsylvania Democrats have predicted their colleague would “someday
lead the Congressional Black Caucus.”
“Chaka Fattah is an excellent and talented public official. I got to
know him well during my days as Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia,” says Dr.
Yvonne Scruggs, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum at the
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “I think he’s very
bright and has a strong analytical mind.”
Fattah represents the Second Congressional District of Philadelphia,
a district once represented by The College Fund/UNCF President William
Gray which includes both inner city and suburban neighborhoods. Fattah
is frequently compared to Gray because both emerged as elected
officials who challenged the political establishment early in their
“He’s a public official with an outstanding future ahead of him. I wish him all the best,” Gray says of Fattah.
While serving as a state legislator, Fattah’s education
responsibilities included stints as chairman of the Pennsylvania Higher
Education Facilities Authority, chairman of the executive board of the
Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, and as a member of the
Pennsylvania State Board of Education. Fattah credits his education
board experiences for grounding him in the complexities of higher
education finance. In the Pennsylvania Senate, he served as a Chairman
of the Senate Education Committee.
A product of Philadelphia public schools, Fattah has earned degrees
from the Community College of Philadelphia and the University of
Pennsylvania. He holds a Master’s degree in Government Administration
from the University of Pennsylvania Fels School of State and Local
Government. Fattah is married to Patricia Renfroe, and the couple have
Fattah says he enjoys serving in the Congress. He admits, however,
to feeling more restricted in Washington than when he served in the
Pennsylvania state legislature.
“In Pennsylvania, I had more opportunity to launch projects and see them through fruition,” he says.
Using Public Policy to Boost Retention
Fattah, who has been forging close links with national education
organizations, counts student retention as an issue he wants to tackle
once he gets the 21st Century Scholars Program proposal through
Congress. He believes that federal education policy can be crafted to
boost student retention rates, and sees the issue as critical to
African American progress.
“It’s possible to double the number of African American college
graduates just by focusing on student retention alone,” Fattah says.
While many predict lofty achievements for the young congressman,
Fattah explains that he is content for now to focus on federal
“I can easily stay busy for another ten years working on higher education policy,” he beams.
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© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com