Monday, February 14, 2011

Focus on Budget Proposals, Pell Grants as 2011 National Legislative Summit Kicks Off

The 2011 Community College National Legislative Summit kicked off the same morning that President Barack Obama unveiled his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, an irony not lost on speakers, who cautioned a near-record turnout of community college leaders convening in Washington that the legislative focus has changed.

““It’s all about the budget,” former education policymaker and consultant Vic Klatt of the Penn Hill Group told NLS attendees during a Monday afternoon session. “Everybody is claiming to be reducing spending—the president, Congress, everyone.”

With lawmakers focusing exclusively on the 16 percent of the federal budget that excludes entitlements and military spending, making the case for community college programs playing critical roles in revitalizing local economies will be challenging, speakers cautioned. “My sense is that it’s going to be very difficult in this climate to have a thorough and logical discussion that starts with the needs of the people in your communities,” Meet the Press moderator David Gregory of NBC told attendees during a Monday general session. “It’s not just a debate about numbers and policy. It’s a debate about leadership in Washington.”

For now, the battle over the FY12 budget is taking a back seat to coming to an agreement over funding for the current fiscal year, with House Republicans proposing significant cuts to a range of programs as the potential of a government shutdown looms as soon as next month. “You couldn’t be here at a better time,” ACCT President & CEO J. Noah Brown told attendees. “What you do over the next few days will have a profound impact on securing scarce resources for your community.”

In outlining the 2011 Community College Federal Legislative Priorities (Word document), officials from ACCT and the American Association of Community Colleges cited potential reductions to the Pell Grant program and the possible use of funds intended for the $2 billion Community College and Career Training Grant Program (CCCTG) to offset existing Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programs as two of the most significant legislative issues facing community colleges.

With the number of Pell Grant recipients having grown by 64 percent at the same time as the maximum award grew to $5,550, overall funding for the program has doubled over the past four years, making it a highly visible target for reductions in the current climate. “Part of it has to do with the economy, part of it has to do with the fact that community colleges are becoming first responders,” ACCT Director of Public Policy Jee Hang Lee said of the increase.

The Pell program has “grown bigger than most state budgets,” added David Baime, AACC senior vice president for government relations and research. “As the economy has tanked and students have come to our doors in record numbers, the program has come under immense financial strain.”

The most recent budget proposal for the current fiscal year offered by House Republicans would reduce the Pell Grant maximum by 15 percent. President Obama’s budget proposal for FY12 would leave the maximum untouched, but place limitations on year-round grants. Further qualifications based on metrics involving college costs and completion are also possible, Robert L. Moran, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said during an afternoon session. “We have dueling proposals from a Democratic president and a Republican House majority to see which one can cut Pell Grants more,” Wall Street Journal bureau chief David Wessel told attendees. “If you need any other reminder of the stakes you face, I can’t think of one.”

Other legislative priorities include grants, institutional aid, workforce development programs, funding for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) provided through a National Science Foundation initiative, and making the American Opportunity Tax Credit, extended for two years as part of the extension of the Bush tax cuts, permanent. Reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, TAA authorization, improvements to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, reconsideration of the DREAM Act and programs to help community colleges serve veteran students round out the priorities. Making the case for these existing programs is especially important this year because no earmarks are expected for at least the next two years, AACC legislative associate Laurie Quarles told attendees. “Without your help this year, we’re going to see some pretty draconian cuts,” she said. “These programs... are where the money is -- and where it will be disappearing from if you don’t make the case for community colleges.”

Speakers urged community college leaders to focus on results in their discussions with lawmakers. “You don’t need rhetoric, you need money, and you need to convince people you’re doing something that makes sense,” said Wessel, encouraging community college leaders to emphasize the returns on investment yielded by retraining and remedial and developmental education, while not losing sight of their mission to help lift the underserved out of poverty. “If you close that door, you don’t deserve to exist,” he said to applause from the audience.

Despite the many challenges, NLS speakers remained upbeat about the future. “Our number one priority is getting people back to work, and community colleges are positioned to help us do just that,” said Penny Pritzker, chair of Skills for America’s Future, which aims to foster partnerships between businesses and community colleges by sharing best practices, identifying sources of funding, and “playing matchmaker” for prospective partners. “Putting our resources into training and development is one of the best investments we can make as a country,” she said. “It could not be clearer that community colleges are in the right place at the right time. The country has never needed you more.”

“We are entering a period of big, big challenges,” ACCT’s Brown said. “But I would submit to you we have big, big opportunities. I am confident today that we’re up to the task of meeting these big opportunities. Without you and the nation’s community colleges, this nation will not be the nation is has been up until this point in history. It’s up to you.”

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