Advocates: Economic Stimulus Needed for Education Too

With the nation’s financial system in turmoil, many education leaders are calling for Congress and President- elect Barack Obama to earmark funding for schools and college students in a new economic stimulus package to help prop up the economy.

The Student Aid Alliance, an umbrella advocacy organization that includes historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, is asking Congress for an immediate $500 increase in the maximum Pell Grant. Help for students and families paying for college should be “an integral part” of a new stimulus bill, the group says.

“History shows that during economic downturns and periods of job loss, Americans turn to postsecondary education,” according to a letter jointly written by alliance co-chairs Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, and Dr. David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. A Pell Grant increase would provide a maximum grant of $5,300, or enough to cover 80 percent of average tuition and fees at a four-year public college or university.

“This would help over 5 million Americans make the choice between unemployment or retraining, between dropping out of college or continuing their education,” the letter states.

Pell Grant applications are up by about 10 percent this year, as more needy students apply for aid, the leaders noted. The program already faces a $3.4 billion shortfall because of heavy recent use. In addition to increasing the maximum Pell Grant, Congress should use the next stimulus bill to retire the remaining shortfall, the alliance says.

Alliance members include the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

But with automakers, lenders and other industry leaders fighting to get government aid, the prospect of new higher education funding is murky. K-12 education groups are also seeking funds from any new economic stimulus package. These advocates are targeting school repair and construction, saying that such projects could provide jobs and improve student learning.

“We are losing opportunities to create 21st-century learning environments,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Old, dilapidated schools lack adequate ventilation and light and have inefficient heating and cooling systems, she says, while improvements could make them friendlier to technology.

Teachers’ unions are presenting a united front on the issue, as the National Education Association also favors such action. In fact, NEA says $20 billion over five years could provide 50,000 jobs a year for needed school repairs.

“Investment in school infrastructure provides a win-win scenario — it improves teaching and learning environments, helps maximize student achievement and creates jobs that help stimulate local economies while putting more money into the hands of working families,” says Dennis Van Roekel, NEA president.

The stimulus package could target “repairs in which the work can start and be completed quickly,” he adds.

Other interest groups are floating a variety of stimulus plans that may include education. The Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank, is asking for an additional $250 million to provide college work-study to more needy students. The group also seeks $500 million more for adult education to help those with limited job skills.

While all of these proposals have merit, some lobbyists voiced concern that a new economic stimulus bill could become a “Christmas tree” full of spending, which could jeopardize bipartisan support.

“You can’t go out like a drunken sailor throwing money away,” one education lobbyist tells Diverse.

But a stimulus bill may be the only spending game in town for a while, as Congress shows little interest in continuing work this fall on a 2009 federal education spending bill. K-12 and higher education programs have operated with only short-term funds since the government’s new fiscal year began Oct. 1.

After the presidential election, some House Democrats discussed the possibility of moving an education spending bill before the end of the year. But support for that idea appears to be fading, says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Nassirian says he also sees a benefit in waiting until Obama takes office. In addition to a Democrat in the White House, the party will have gained seats in the new Congress convening in January.

“I don’t see an advantage of pushing a more Democratic budget bill right now,” he says. “It would be much easier to pass one next year.”

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