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A Waning Priority

Despite high expectations with Democratic Congress, public policy groups are losing hopes of repealing financial aid ban on students convicted of minor drug offenses.

More than a year after Democrats claimed control of Congress, one priority for students and some higher education groups — repealing the financial aid ban on those convicted of minor drug violations — remains on the books with little resolution in sight.

The issue is particularly vexing for those working on behalf of low-income students, who say that many poor young adults — and many students of color — are among those suffering the most from this provision.

“We thought we’d have results by now,” says Tom Angell, government relations director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a Washington, D.C., group that has fought to overturn the provision either through legislation or the courts.

“At the beginning of this Congress, we had high expectations for new leadership,” he says. Yet it’s increasingly clear, he adds, that “many lawmakers don’t care about this issue, one way or another.”

Under the aid elimination provision, enacted in 1998, a student loses aid for one year for any type of drug-related conviction, including possession. Penalties increase for second offenses and for those dealing drugs.

Most estimates indicate that the provision affects about 200,000 students annually. “It’s pretty clear this policy has a disproportionate effect on people of color and low-income families,” Angell says.

Carmen Berkley, vice president of the U.S. Student Association, agrees that the issue “is not a priority” for some lawmakers. “We think they’ve been putting it off because of the credit crisis or the war. Plus, it’s an election year,” she says.

Congressional offices contacted for this story — including those for several Congressional Black Caucus members — would not speak publicly about the aid elimination provision. Lobbyists say privately that some CBC members and other lawmakers are working behind the scenes to try to soften the aid elimination provision in House/Senate negotiations on the Higher Education Act.

In approving their own HEA renewal bills, neither the House nor the Senate voted for outright repeal of the drug provision. However, the House would make it easier for students to regain student aid eligibility once they pass two unannounced drug tests. Current law also requires students to complete a drug rehabilitation program before restoration of eligibility.

Negotiations on HEA have dragged on most of the spring with dozens of outstanding issues, like funding for Pell Grants and minority-serving colleges and administrative requirements for colleges.

“I hope it’s part of HEA reauthorization,” Berkley tells Diverse. However, she says there is little optimism that House and Senate negotiators will settle on a higher education bill anytime soon. “That’s not a good sign.”

Advocates for repeal also lost in the courts recently when a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled against groups that sought to overturn the penalty. The opponents had argued that the elimination of aid amounts to double jeopardy, since students also are subject to probation, jail and other penalties through the legal system.

The judges did not support that argument, however. Instead, they upheld an earlier U.S. District Court ruling that left the law intact.

“The issue is now back in Congress’ court,” Angell says.

While many groups are hopeful for some action through HEA, in recent weeks several members of Congress have introduced stand-alone bills that seek changes in the aid elimination provision.

In the House, 85 lawmakers have signed on to a bill to repeal the drug-related aid penalty. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is a co-sponsor; others include CBC members such as Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., Ed Towns, D-N.Y., Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Danny Davis, D-Ill.

Across Capitol Hill, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has introduced a bill, which would not repeal the penalty outright but would allow judges to impose the financial aid penalty on a case-by-case basis. Current law “is a blunt tool that sweeps all cases into the same onesize- fits-all solution,” Dodd said in proposing the bill.

“There is little distinction under this law as to whether the drug possession is a major or minor violation and to what degree the infraction affects the community at large,” he said. By providing a uniform ban for possession as well as drug dealing, the provision may deny low-income students an education for relatively minor infractions.

“Our laws should reflect the need for varied approaches,” Dodd said. Student groups will fight for enactment of the stand-alone bills, leaders say. But HEA still is the preferred route to address the issue.

“Anything dealing with drugs is extremely controversial,” Berkley notes. With that in mind, it may be best to place any proposals for change within a larger bill. “The best thing is for it to be in HEA,” she adds.

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