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Lamar Alexander’s Education-Reform Gambit Threatens HBCU Funding

The senator’s plan to add bipartisan proposals to a funding bill is meeting stiff resistance.

By Lauren Camera, US News

Federal funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority-serving institutions is on track to expire Sept. 30, as Senate Republicans refuse to consider a two-year extension House Democrats passed and are instead angling to attach the funding to a package of bipartisan measures aimed at updating the Higher Education Act.

“Right now, we are days away from a very damaging lapse in funding for our HBCUs, our tribal colleges and other minority-serving institutions, and that creates unnecessary and needless uncertainty for students in schools across the country,” Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington state and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Thursday on the floor of the Senate.

“I’m very frustrated about today’s opposition to a very simple step to protect colleges and universities with such important missions,” she said. “I really can’t see a good reason why we haven’t sent this president this bill yet.”

The House passed a bill last week that would extend for two years the $255 million annual appropriations, paid for by eliminating a subsidy for loan guarantee agencies.

But Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the HELP Committee, blocked the bill from being adopted in the Senate under unanimous consent, instead leveraging the time-sensitive situation by attaching the HBCU funding to a new piece of legislation that includes several bipartisan measures to partially update the Higher Education Act.

The Department of Education has assured Alexander, he said, that it has enough funding for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions to continue through the next fiscal year, even if the funding expires at the end of this month.

“Congress has the time to do this,” Alexander said, further arguing that the bill the House passed would extend the funding by only two years and set up another battle down the road.

For Alexander, who announced last year that he would not seek reelection in 2020, the procedural move is somewhat of a last ditch effort to make a mark on his signature issue: higher education. Alexander was the president of the University of Tennessee system and also secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush.

He and Murray have been negotiating a path forward for years now on a top-to-bottom rewrite of a law that’s more than a decade overdue for reauthorization, working in bipartisan faith as they did to overhaul the federal K-12 law in 2016. But the chances of a reauthorization passing before Alexander’s departure seem mixed at best, so he’s looking to enshrine into law the parts of a reform bill that both sides agree on while leaving the thornier issues for further negotiation.

Alexander’s strategy is risky. Even if he’s able to rally his chamber to support a scaled-back approach, odds are slim it would get the blessing of the Democratic-controlled House, where Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, is working on a broader rewrite. And the looming 2020 election aside, the entire legislative calendar was complicated earlier this week when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California opened an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

In addition to permanently funding HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions at $255 million annually, the pared down package Alexander proposed would also simplify the federal student aid form and the letters outlining aid packages to students, increase the maximum award for Pell Grants, allow Pell Grants to be used for short-term academic programs and allow incarcerated individuals to use Pell Grants.

Alexander outlined three additional provisions that 30 senators from both sides of the aisle support – a good start, he underscored, but not enough to prevent any one of them from jeopardizing the package.

Those provisions include the creation of a student unit record system, which would help students and their families compare how students performed at different colleges and universities; the reauthorization of a federal program known as TRIO that helps low-income and first-generation college students get into and through college; and the reauthorization of Gallaudet University, the school for students with hearing impairments in Washington, D.C.

With a little more discussion and work, Alexander said, they should be included in this package at a later date. He stressed that he and Murray have been working on the reauthorization for more than five years and have held a total of 30 hearings on different aspects of it.

“I am committed to continuing to work with Sen. Murray to develop a larger, more comprehensive bipartisan bill, but right now, we have an opportunity to enact a package including several of the bipartisan proposals that have come from our process,” Alexander said.

His logic doesn’t seem to be enough for Murray, who from the beginning of the negotiation has been adamant that any reuathorization of the Higher Education Act must also address accountability for rising costs and mounting student loan debt, simplification of the loan repayment system and campus safety.

“Since the start of those discussion, I’ve been very clear,” Murray said. “We need to do this reauthorization in a comprehensive way that really helps our students with the many challenges they face.”

Passing a smaller package, Murray said, would effectively mean they would never work through the issues they haven’t finished negotiating.

“Surely the Senate can reach an agreement on those issues, but only if we stay at the table and keep working together rather than veering off the course we set,” she said.

Democrats and HBCUs blasted Alexander for holding the funding hostage at a time when the schools are struggling to stay afloat.

“Let me be clear: Our work is not done to preserve critical funding for HBCUs and other Minority-Serving Institutions,” said California Sen. Kamala Harris, Democratic presidential candidate who graduated from Howard University and has promised to supercharge HBCU funding if elected. “I am disappointed that, for the second time, my Senate colleagues opposed our efforts to pass the [bill] before the funding expires on Monday. I urge my colleagues to act without delay to ensure these institutions are fully supported as they continue to serve the next generation of leaders.”

Officials from the United Negro College Fund expressed their “highest level of disappointment” in Alexander’s decision to use the funding extension for HBCUs as a vehicle for other proposals.

“Getting this funding for HBCUs, and the students that they serve, who want to go into demanding STEM careers is so important that I thought no one would stand in the way,” Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the organization, said in a statement.

The fund launched a campaign last month to urge Congress to pass the necessary funding for HBCUs, during which it sent 54,500 emails and made more than 1,800 phone calls to members of Congress.

Higher education policy experts, meanwhile, urged members of Congress to reject Alexander’s pitch, arguing that while they support the provisions included in the scaled-back proposal, it comes nowhere near addressing the root causes of a broken system of higher education while at the same time holds hostage critical funding for HBCUs.

“Senator Alexander’s piece-meal approach ignores this urgent need for reform and attempts to hold hostage funding that is expiring for historically black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions that should be addressed separately,” Persis Yu, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, said in a statement. “We hope that Congress will reject these bills and work towards a real solution for struggling students and borrowers.”

“Sen. Alexander is right about one thing: a more extensive rewrite of the Higher Education Act is long overdue,” Bob Shireman, director of higher education excellence at The Century Foundation, said in a statement. “But holding hostage funding for HBCUs – and the future for the tens of thousands of students they serve – is unacceptable.”

This article originally appeared in US News.

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